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1791 George Stubbs and the Empty Picture Frame

The year 1791 marked the first year in which Joshua Reynolds did not exhibit at the Royal Academy. In the previous December, he had delivered his final presidential Discourse, and now, with the onset of blindness, he was effectively retired as an artist. Thomas Gainsborough had been dead three years, and virtually all the major artists of their generation were now deceased. An exception, at least to modern eyes, was George Stubbs. Born in 1724, only a year after Reynolds, Stubbs was still in his prime physically, mentally, and artistically. In many ways, the early 1790s marked the high point of his later career. The 1791 Academy Exhibition catalogue listed four works: A Pomeranian dog, H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, A shepherd’s dog from the South of France, and A Buffalo.

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Stubbs, although he had exhibited at the Academy since 1775, and continued do so for nearly another thirty years, had a complex and uneasy relationship with the institution, maintaining his distance from the status quo and the Academy’s internal politics. In 1780, Stubbs was elected Associate Royal Academician and the following year became a full Academician. Egalitarian by nature, with a deep distrust of institutional authority, Stubbs did not scruple to submit the Diploma work demanded by the Academy. As a result, his full membership was rescinded, and he was reduced to “ARA”. Stubbs paid no attention, however, and continued to append the initials “RA” to his name in the annual exhibition catalogue.

The early 1790s witnessed in Stubbs a prodigious burst of energy and dedication to his art, with the production of over forty works between 1791 and 1793, a quite phenomenal output considering the painstaking nature of his art, and its technical brilliance. During this period, Stubbs’ most significant patron was George, Prince of Wales. In contrast to George III, who commissioned nothing from Stubbs, the Prince proved a keen patron, purchasing nineteen works from the artist. Thirteen of these were of identical size (40 x 50 inches), and mounted in identical carved and gilded frames, including the Prince’s own equestrian portrait.1  

The Prince’s portrait, according to the exhibition catalogue, was to be displayed in the Great Room at the 1791 exhibition. However, when the doors opened to the public, an empty frame occupied the space on the wall reserved for it. “Stubbs”, stated a reviewer in The Morning Chronicle, “should have had four exhibits but one frame was on Saturday blank.”2 As The Times noted subsequently, the frame was occupied by A Hunting Piece, since the portrait of the Prince had not been finished in time.3 History does not reveal whether Stubbs or his capricious royal patron was responsible for the non-appearance of the Prince’s portrait.4

Of the three other portraits that Stubbs exhibited in 1791, two were of dogs, and the third featured a buffalo. As with a surprisingly large number of the artist’s Academy exhibits, all trace of the buffalo has been lost. The original specimen, like other exotic species painted by Stubbs, may well have belonged to his friend, the anatomist John Hunter, who at that time was in the habit of driving down Piccadilly in a cart pulled by specially trained buffaloes.5 We are on firmer ground with regard to the identification and ownership of the dogs displayed by Stubbs in 1791.

Although Stubbs is regarded above all as an artist devoted to equine art, the dog occupied an important, if underrated, aspect of his œuvre. Since 1775, Stubbs had exhibited at the Academy no less than fourteen paintings of dogs, as opposed to eleven works featuring horses. Among the dogs portrayed by Stubbs, the most familiar are spaniels and foxhounds; working dogs, employed in the hunt by the artist’s aristocratic patrons. Like the horses portrayed by Stubbs, foxhounds were the focus of intense selection and breeding. However, Stubbs also produced ‘portraits’ of more exotic canine species. They included, in 1775, the portrait of a Pomeranian dog belonging to Earl Spencer, and the portrait of a Spanish dog, or Papillon, belonging to the Royal Academician Richard Cosway.

The two paintings of dogs exhibited by Stubbs at the 1791 exhibition were probably both portraits of animals owned by the Prince of Wales. A Pomeranian dog, although it has not been identified definitely, was quite possibly the painting in the Royal Collection entitled Fino and Tiny (Fig. 1). This was in fact a depiction of two dogs: a larger, and far more prominent, black and white dog called Fino, together with a much smaller brown spaniel named—appropriately—Tiny. The ‘Pomeranian’ is in fact a Spitz breed; the name Pomeranian was then used to describe a range of furry, pointy-eared dogs of mid-European origin.6

The positive identification of A shepherd’s dog from the South of France as the painting in the Royal Collection (Fig. 2) was made possible by the description in the Morning Chronicle of the dog being in ‘precisely the same position’ as Stubbs’ portrayal of a Bengal tigress belonging to the Duke of Marlborough, which he had exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1769, and which was known widely through the mezzotint engraving by John Dixon exhibited there in 1773.7 The dog, which may coincidentally adopt the pose of Stubbs’ tigress, would appear to be a breed of French water dog (or “Barbet”), although in 1816, by which time it had been consigned to a picture store in Carlton House, it was described merely as A Rough Dog.8 Yet, viewed in the context of exhibition culture in the late eighteenth century, such exotic pet dogs represented a canine elite. As with Stubbs’ racehorses bred by aristocratic owners, who were themselves portrayed at Exhibition by Reynolds and Gainsborough as a rarefied species, so these dogs acted in turn as conspicuous visual commentaries on taste and breeding.

  1. Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 400142.↩︎

  2. The Morning Chronicle, 2 May 1791.↩︎

  3. The Times, 19 May 1791.↩︎

  4. Judy Egerton, George Stubbs, Painter: Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 536, no. 300.↩︎

  5. Jan Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities (London: I.B. Tauris, 1997), 190. See also, accessioned 5 July 2017.↩︎

  6. Earl Spencer’s Pomeranian exhibited by Stubbs in 1775 has since, for example, been identified as a Dutch barge dog, or keeshond. Egerton, 2007, 366, no. 167.↩︎

  7. The Morning Chronicle, 18 May 1791; Egerton, 2007, 530, 240.↩︎

  8. Egerton, 2007, 5230.↩︎

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