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George Stubbs 1724-1806 : by Judy Egerton (Tate Gallery/Salem House: $45; 248 pp., illustrated)

April 21, 1985|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Muchnic is a Times staff writer

Mr. Stubbs the Horse Painter has finally left his stable. Art history's perpetual recycling process has dusted off one of 18th-Century England's most brilliant artists and proclaimed him bigger than his traditional label.

No one has ever challenged George Stubbs' position as the grandest, most adroit visual record-keeper of England's preoccupation with horse racing and hunting, but that praise has damned him by channeling appreciation of him to the sporting set and restricting his museum exposure. Now a comprehensive exhibition and its impeccable catalogue have initiated a change in Stubbs' critical fortune.

The show, which was at the Tate Gallery in London last fall and closed April 7 at the Yale Center for British Art, was mounted to prove Stubbs as keen an observer of human beings as of animals. Perhaps the most convincing proof that the exhibition has allowed Stubbs' reputation to escape equine restrictions arrived in the March issue of Art in America where John McEwen's scholarly praise of him is prominently sandwiched between ads for contemporary art and an article on Brice Marden's abstractions.

Unaccustomed company, but Stubbs' new status might have been predicted by the return to favor of representational art and a revivalist/revisionist attitude that has moved art historians to dredge up less substantial characters. Once Stubbs' exhibition and enthusiastic reviews of it fade from memory, the handsomely illustrated catalogue is likely to keep his work alive for future generations.

Egerton hasn't provided as full a context as needed to place him authoritatively in the broad scheme of art history. She has, however, set forth what little biographical information is known, disputed myths and compiled detailed entries on about 200 of Stubbs' paintings, anatomical drawings and prints.

Stubbs was born in Liverpool of a prosperous currier and leather seller. Almost entirely self-taught, he worked as a portrait painter in northern England and studied human and animal anatomy by dissection. Among the most colorful images of the artist at work is one depicting him dragging dead horses upstairs to his studio where he suspended them for weeks, systematically stripping away their skin and muscle.

The result of this practice is a 10-year drawing project called "The Anatomy of the Horse," published in 1766. "A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Structure of the Human Body With That of a Tiger and a Common Fowl," begun towards end of his long life, was never published, but 142 chalk-and-pencil drawings are in Yale's collection. Both of these intensive studies are well represented in the catalogue by astonishingly fine drawings.

Stubbs' anatomical diligence has been rewarded in part by a tendency to regard it as a scientific calling instead of a means of painting more realistically. The artist made his intentions clear by writing that he did only what he thought "necessary for the study of Painting." The payoff is obvious in art that rarely gets bogged down in misunderstanding of form or inept drawing.

Wild beasts also captured Stubbs' fancy. Models for them came from the royal menagerie and--in the case of several paintings of a lion attacking a horse--from sculpture. He painted the first zebra to come to England and drew Marmaduke Tunstall's mouse lemur. The exoticism of strange creatures and the romanticism of such great pictures as "Cheetah and Stag With Two Indians" contrast sharply with the calm sense of privileged belonging in his horse-and-owner portraits.

Yet, these disparate bodies of work are linked by a quest for perfection that left no element to chance, no contour unrelated. They are also unified by a democratic sensibility that found as much satisfaction in the face of an animal or a servant as in a nobleman. Stubbs makes no judgments about his subjects except that if they are worth painting, they are worth observing sensitively and interpreting harmoniously. This brings a pervasive sense of peace to Stubbs' oeuvre. Even the ostensibly violent pictures are more dramatically composed than scary. We may see teeth biting into flesh, but we don't see blood, and we can't help noticing that the scenes are drenched in beauty.

Current writing notwithstanding, Stubbs' animal studies and paintings are his most interesting and accomplished work. He deserves to be remembered for them, not caged by them. Mr. Stubbs the Horse Painter has been as absolutely classified by his subject matter as Eliza Doolittle was by her Cockney accent, but that's not the worst of the problem. He's the victim of an entrenched art historical prejudice holding that painters of lesser animals are necessarily lesser artists. On this round of Stubbs' re-evaluation, the stigma sticks. His champions argue for his range as if that were the only means of validating his vision.

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