A Horse Affrighted at a Lion, 1 May 1788
George Stubbs ARA (1724 - 1806)
RA Collection: Art
A white horse starts at the sight of the lion: to contemporaries of George Stubbs, this was the image most closely associated with him. Over a period of almost thirty years Stubbs repeated the subject of the horse menaced by a lion (and, less often, a lion attacking a horse) in numerous paintings and prints, of which this is the last.
In his scenes of horses being stalked and attacked by lions, Stubbs elevated the painting of animals beyond portraiture and genre scenes to the drama associated with history painting. Stubbs set his scenes of primeval violence against bleak landscapes, filled with cliffs and caves, which a contemporary audience would have associated with Edmund Burke’s theories of the ‘sublime’ (an aesthetic emotion connected to feelings of pain and danger). In this way Stubbs took the previously disregarded genre of animal painting and imbued it with the elevated characteristics of history painting and landscape.
The inspiration for Stubbs’ horse and lion pictures appears to have come from both art and nature. He would have seen a well-known antique sculpture of a horse attacking a lion while in Rome in 1754, providing him with a classical precedent for his pictures. Furthermore, according to an article published soon after Stubbs’ death, he also witnessed a lion stalking and killing a horse while in Morocco, where he stayed on his way back to England. The exotic character of Stubbs’ pictures was part of the attraction for Stubbs’ patrons—horse breeders, owners and admirers, they were fascinated with the exotic origins of the English thoroughbred. Stubbs’ horse and lion pictures can be interpreted as part of the imagined prehistory of the thoroughbred in Africa and the Middle East, which he vividly brought to life for his clientele.
Stubbs was a skilled printmaker as well as painter, and this is probably the most famous of all his prints. It is one of twelve etchings based on Stubbs’ own paintings, drawings or enamels, that he published as a group on 1 May 1788 in an effort to publicise his work. The series, which also includes the companion A Lion Devouring a Horse, represents the core of Stubbs’s output as a mature printmaker.
The source of this particular image is often associated with the focal area of Stubbs’ White Horse Frightened by a Lion (1770) in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. However, a more exact repetition of the subject accompanied a memoir of the artist published in The Sportsman's Magazine (vol. XXXII, 1808), where it was positively identified as based on 'a fine enamel picture in possession of Mr. Stubbs's executrix'.
25.2 mm x 330 mm
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