Tag Archives: fear

George Stubbs – A Horse Frightened By A Lion

29 Oct

George Stubbs, A Horse Frightened By A Lion, 1770

Clearly separating the art of Classicism and that of Romanticism is hard, but tracing the early occurrences of romantic tendencies in visual arts is, on the other hand, an easier pursuit. I always saw Henri Fusseli’s painting “The Nightmare” from 1781 as one of the earliest examples of Romanticism in the visual arts because both the mood and the theme show the artist’s exploration of darker topics; dreams and the irrational, something which would scarcely be interesting to painters from previous generations and even to his contemporaries. Still, there is another eighteenth century painter, George Stubbs, who imbued two of his works with a Romantic taste for wild, untamed nature and strong emotions and thereby exhibited what were to become the tendencies of Romanticism. The romantic pathos in his painting “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” is hard to ignore.

Stubbs was an Academic painter who specialised in animal painting, horses in particular, and even published a work called “Anatomy of the Horse” (1766) which is a result of his meticulous study of the anatomy of that fine elegant animal and shows his natural precision and dedication to study from nature directly, not from copies of others. He was also one of the first painters to paint animals that were exotic and therefore fascinating to the English audience and Europe in general, such as zebras and kangaroos. Stubb’s two paintings; “A Horse Frightened by a Lion” and “A Lion Attacking a Horse”, from 1770, were imagined as a pendant and show a distinctly romantic mood which was a great shift stylistically and arises directly from Edmund Burke’s theoretical work “On the Sublime and Beautiful”, first published in 1756. Criticism towards Burke tend to claim that he merely observed the direction of the art towards a new style, but Stubb’s example shows us how an artist was inspired by theory.

George Stubbs, A Lion Attacking a Horse, 1770

Here is an interesting fragment from the third part of Burke’s work, from the essay “Proportion not the cause of beauty in animals”: “Turn next to beasts; examine the head of a beautiful horse; find what proportion that bears to his body, and to his limbs, and what relation these have to each other; and when you have settled these proportions as a standard of beauty, then take a dog or cat, or any other animal, and examine how far the same proportions between their heads and their necks, between those and the body, and so on, are found to hold; I think we may safely say, that they differ in every species, yet that there are individuals, found in a great many species so differing, that have a very striking beauty.” So, Burke even mentions a horse in particular, an animal which had already been of great interest to Stubbs, and connects its proportion-less appearance with the aesthetic of sublime.

I already wrote a detailed post about the opposing aesthetics of the Beautiful and the Sublime, based on Immanuel Kant’s work, here. In short, the Sublime is that which inspires awe, fear and strong emotions. For example: thunderstorms, a very tall and strong oak, wild waves, volcano eruption, strong wind, ruin of a castle perched on top of the hill, a big mountain or a steep cliff. Here is what Burke said: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.” (Of the Sublime)

In “A Horse Frightened by a Lion”, our eye is captivated by the glistening whiteness of the poor frightened horse in the dark forest where all sorts of ominous things might occur. How strongly his whole body reacts to the grim encounter with the lion; his wide-opened eye shows how startled he is, his muscles are emphasised and animated, his mouth open in despair, his fine light hair is blown away by the wind of fear. Lion’s patient face emerges from the darkness. Stubbs purposefully chose to portray a frightening sight from nature to stir the viewer’s feelings and awaken his empathy. In the second scene, “A Lion Attacking a Horse“, the poor horse is already attacked by the cruel lion in the mute darkness of the landscape full of rocks and shrubbery. The horse’s mouth, neck and feet are all contorted from the pain and fear. The figure of the lion is disappearing into the darkness and blending in with the wild nature, both are overpowering and sinister for the white fragile horse. On the left part of the painting, dark clouds are gathering, ready to wash the blood that is to flow with fresh rain drops.

George Stubbs, A lion attacking a horse, 1765

Stubbs painted an entire series on lions and horses, starting from the early 1760s, I’ve put two examples bellow, but they have certainly changed as decades passed. His focus shifted from the anatomy of the horse and the act of attack itself to the sublime mood and the horse’s reaction. The landscape grew darker and bigger, the horse is left nothing but a small white figure in the foreground while nature domineers. Compositions are similar, and the figure of the lion attacking the horse are nearly identical in two different versions from 1765 and 1770, but the mood differs greatly. The landscape is light and classical in the earlier paintings, whereas the later ones show the kind of melancholy beauty that later romantic landscapes are praised for. This series of paintings is a result of three things: Stubbs’s lifelong fascination with horses and study of anatomy, influence of Burke’s idea of the Sublime, and also Stubb’s visit to Rome in 1754 where he must have seen and memorised the Capitoline sculpture which shows a lion attacking a horse.

George Stubbs, Horse Frightened by a Lion, exhibited in 1763

John Everett Millais – The Vale of Rest

3 Dec

Painting ‘The Vale of Rest’ isn’t as famous as Ophelia, nor as vibrant and richly coloured as Mariana or The Blind Girl, but it is certainly one of Millais’ most atmospheric paintings, and also the one whose mystery can’t be solved despite all the details, symbols and hints, typical for early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Roman Catholic nuns on a graveyard in the dusk of an autumn day. Mood of mystery, anxiety and secrecy.

The Vale of Rest 1858-9 Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01507John Everett Millais, The Vale of Rest, 1858-59

Dusk of a late Autumn day. Poplar trees are looming on the horizon. Tombstones coated in moss; names of the dead nearly erased with time, their lives now mere legends. Sky dazzles with purple, vanilla yellow and pink-lavender shades as chillness descends in this walled enclosure. A contour of a low chapel with a bell. Two Roman Catholic nuns. One digging a grave, the other – observing with a worried look on her face, and clutching a rosary in her hand. Art critic Tom Lubbock said of the painting: ‘Corpses, secrets, conspiracy, fear. It’s a picture that pulls out all the stops.’ The whole scene evokes mystery. Why is the nun digging a grave? Is it a burial, or an exhumation? What secrets are they hiding, and whose body lies in the cold, dark soil. Then the subject of Catholic nuns – still an object of scepticism in Victorian Britain.

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Millais intended this painting to be a pendant to Spring or The Apple Blossoms (1856-59) where the subject of death is only hinted, but here it is fully exposed. There’s a skull on the nun’s rosary, and in the sky there’s a purple cloud vaguely shaped like a coffin – a harbinger of death, according to a Scots legend. As if the sight of a graveyard in the dusk isn’t unsettling enough, Millais incorporated these little morbid details. As you can see, the Pre-Raphaelite paintings are like books, you can read them by observing the details and symbols, which can always be interpreted in a different way.

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Although he had carried the idea of painting nuns in his mind for some time, Millais ventured into painting this scene one night in late October in 1858, when the appearance of the sky, shining in gold and purple shades, was especially pleasing to him. He had to work with his brush quickly because, as it goes in autumn, sky is beautiful and vibrant for one moment, and a second later all is dark and cold once again. Still, the idea occurred to him earlier, while on his honeymoon in Scotland in 1855. His wife Effie recalled: ‘On descending the hill by Loch Awe, from Inverary, he was extremely struck with its beauty, and the coachman told us that on one of the islands were the ruins of a monastery. We imagined to ourselves the beauty of the picturesque features of the Roman Catholic religion, and transported ourselves, in idea, back to the times before the Reformation had torn down, with bigoted zeal, all that was beautiful from antiquity, or sacred from the piety or remorse of the founders of old ecclesiastical building in this country. The abbots fished and boated in the loch, the vesper bell pealed forth the ‘Ave Maria’ at sundown, and the organ notes of the Virgin’s hymn were carried by the water and transformed into a sweeter melody, caught up on the hillside and dying away in the blue air. We pictured, too, white-robed nuns in boats, singing on the water in the quiet summer evenings, and chanting holy songs, inspired by the loveliness of the world around them…‘ (source)

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Millais painted the sky, trees and shrubs sitting just outside the front door, in the garden of Effie’s family at Bowerswell, Perth. Effie said: ‘It was about the end of October, and he got on very rapidly with the trees and worked every afternoon, patiently and faithfully, at the poplar and oak trees of the background until November, when the leaves had nearly all fallen.‘ The grave and the tombstones were painted a few months later at Kinnoull old churchyard in Perth. There’s a funny story connected to it. So, as Millais was painting at the graveyard daily, two strange or ‘queer’ bachelors, known by the names ‘Sin’ and ‘Misery’, noticed him and assumed that he made a living by painting the graves of deceased persons. So, they brought him wine and cakes every day, to reward his everyday hardships.

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To end this post, I have to say that Millais is, in my opinion, the master of painting dusks and capturing moods and psychological states in a lyrical way; in Mariana, he portrayed her longing and loneliness, and even here you can sense a certain tension, or a deeper emotional connection between two nuns, even perhaps a game of power; while one is digging, tired, with rolled up sleeves, the other sits calmly, though her direct gaze at the viewer reveals anxiety and worry. Millais perfectly captured the colours of an autumn dusk; even softening the gold and purple, according to Effie. In ‘The Vale of Rest’, he perfectly captured the mood, just like he did in his painting ‘Autumn Leaves’, 1856.

Still, after analysing this painting, and observing its every detail, every symbol and every brushstroke, I can’t solve the mystery behind it. Perhaps it was never meant to be solved, but enjoyed. And I certainly did; drowned in its dusky mood and morbid, doomy beauty.