Monday, 20 July 2015



In the fourth in my series looking at famous equestrian paintings, I consider a dramatic composition which embodies the essence of nature at its cruellest.

Horse Attacked By a Lion, George Stubbs

Painted by the extraordinary British artist George Stubbs (1724-1806), painter of Whistlejacket, the first in this series of equine paintings, this is an image which lives on in the memory. A ‘close-up’ octagonal version, produced in enamel on copper, hangs in the Tate Gallery in London.

I cannot remember when, but I saw this picture as a child – possibly in a book – and while I would not say it has haunted me ever since, it has certainly influenced my thinking and perception of nature.

It is a subject which clearly affected Stubbs too, for he produced seventeen such works during the course of thirty years, through sketches, paintings and sculptures. This painting in particular was as famous at the time of its completion as it is today. What inspired Stubbs to paint it has long been the subject of conjecture – did he witness such a scene? One theory suggested that he took a trip to the coast of Africa on his return from a sojourn in Italy and saw a similar attack on a Barbary horse. Historians believe there is no evidence to support this and it is more likely, that as a known equestrian artist he was shown, while in Rome in 1754, the famous and evocative marble sculpture in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, in which a lion does indeed attack a horse.

Horse Frightened By A Lion, George Stubbs

Stubbs completed four separate parts to the evolving story. Part one shows the horse rearing in alarm as it smells the lion leaving its cave. In the second, the horse is rooted to the spot in fear as the cat approaches. This painting is the third episode of the drama, with the lion launching itself on to the horse’s back to make the death grip with its teeth just above the withers. Finally, the horse falls with the lion on top. The horse is depicted as ‘white’ (grey), as in the above painting, or as a chestnut with flaxen mane and tail.

A Lion Attacking A Horse, George Stubbs

Stubbs is believed to have visited the Hounslow Heath menagerie belonging to Lord Sherborne, in order to make preparatory sketches of lions from life, before commencing the project.

For centuries, Man has thought animals to be inferior beings; to be used as beasts of burden, for sport and for amusement. This was definitely the viewpoint of most during the eighteenth century, the ‘Age of Reason’. Being inferior because of their lack of intellect, animals, it was propounded, did not have feelings. They could not feel emotion for that was the domain of Homo sapiens alone. There are sadly some who still follow that creed today.

The scientist Descartes declared that animals’ responses were mechanical and therefore they could not experience anything in the same way as a human. Disagreeing, Voltaire asked Descartes if nature had not provided all the same means of feeling to the animal in order that it might feel. Whether or not this series of pictures by Stubbs express his comment on the subject is not for me to say, but he spent his life with horses, handling and studying them. He knew – as anyone who spends time with these wonderful animals does – that horses are remarkably like people in many ways. They can be sensitive, stubborn, intelligent, crafty, ‘out of sorts’; they can know confidence, arrogance, fear, suffering and much more.

This picture is a painting of violence; a statement on the cruelty of nature. The vivid contrast of the lion’s tawny hide against the stallion’s white coat adds to the impact and power of the work. It is a haunting piece. The horse is in a state of abject terror combined with fury. He wants and needs to remove the predator from his back. He feels the emotion just as the person viewing the painting experiences the drama, trauma and fear of the horse.
Pictures courtesy Wikimedia Commons

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