Today, Leonardo's ghost inhabits an English
painter. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
That greatest anatomist of
his age, Leonardo da Vinci, dissected people and
oxen to learn the machinery of life. But it was
another animal that transfixed Leonardo -- the
horse. Leonardo drew horses, snorting, pawing, and
prancing. Sinister horses and horses at play.
Leonardo was haunted by the horse.
Now meet George Stubbs, born in 1724. He did
portraits, and he helped shape a new Gothic vision
of nature. If you've seen his studies of lions
attacking horses, you haven't forgotten them.
The son of a Liverpool tanner, Stubbs got his start
in art as a child drawing left-over animal bones.
At 21 he went to York to paint. He was soon
teaching anatomy to medical students there. He also
did 18 engravings of human fetuses for Dr. John
Burton. Burton, one of the inventors of forceps,
had been in and out of jail for supporting Scottish
Stubbs developed a vile reputation for his cold,
detached studies of the dead. When a doctor gave
him the cadaver of a woman who'd died in
childbirth, he carted her off to his garret studio.
Still, his drawings of unborn children are
expressive and compassionate.
And, reputation or no, commissions came. He did
painting after painting of lords and ladies riding
to hounds. The lords and ladies are forgettable --
the animals are not.
By now, Stubbs was dissecting horses. He invented
techniques for handling their huge carcasses. He
got hold of a dead tiger and dissected it as well.
Then, in 1766, he published his magnificent
treatise on the Anatomy of the Horse. In it, horses
walk toward you, away from you, and past you --
each has one less layer of flesh than the last.
Stubbs X-rays their bodies with his pen and his
brush. At last only the perfect skeleton remains,
moving with the same dignity and grace as the
living animal that once clothed it.
That was when he was 42. At 70 Stubbs began another
project, more ambitious. He called it A Comparative
Anatomical Exposition of the Human Body with that
of a Tiger and a Common Fowl.
He studies a man, a leopard, and a hen -- standing,
walking, and moving -- with flesh on and flesh
removed by degrees. He shows the man walking on two
legs like the hen and on all fours like the cat.
Charles Darwin wouldn't publish his Origin of
Species for another 40 years, but the seed
had clearly been sown.
Stubbs was as fine a physiologist as was to be
found, yet he called himself an historical painter.
He was too like Leonardo. He was transfixed by the
energy, force, and menace of the horse. First he
dismantled horses with cool, accurate detachment.
Then he rebuilt them into the stuff that dreams are
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Doherty, T., The Anatomical Works of George
Stubbs, London: Secker & Warburg, 1974.
George Stubbs, 1724-1806. London: The
Tate Gallery, 1984.
Morrison, V., The Art of George
Stubbs. London: Quarto Publishing Co., 1989.
Taylor, B., Stubbs. London: Phaidon
Press Limited, 1971.
Egerton, J., George Stubbs: Anatomist and
Animal Painter. London: The Tate Gallery,
Todd, R., Tracks in the Snow. London:
The Grey Walls Press, 1962.
Grigson, G., Horse and Rider: Eight Centuries
of Equestrian Paintings. New York: Thames
and Hudson: Publishers, 1950.
... the glory of his nostrils is terrible.
He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his
he goeth to meet the armed men.
He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted;
neither turneth he back from the sword ...
He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage
Job 39: 20-24
For Stubbs' 1770 painting, A Horse Frightened by
a Lion go to the website,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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