Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Farmer's Wife and the Raven 1783

George Stubbs RA 1724 - 1806

The Farmer's Wife and the Raven, George Stubbs RA
Oil on Panel
18th Century
35 3/8 x 54 1/4 in.
Charles Chitty; With Vokins, from whom purchased c.1885; Anonymous sale; Christie’s London, 26th March 1902, lot 21, bt. Silverlode; Colonel P E H Balfour; by descent to his daughter, Mrs Chichester, later Lady Watson
‘Stubbs & Wedgewood’, Tate exhibition catalogue, B Tattersall (London 1974) p.84; ‘British Sporting and Animal Paintings 1655-1867’, Judy Egerton (ed.) (London 1978) p.95-6; ‘George Stubbs 1724-1806’, Tate exhibition catalogue (London 1984) p.172. To be included in Judy Egerton’s forthcoming ‘George Stubbs, Painter – Catalogue Raisonné’ (Yale, 2007)
Aldeburgh, Suffolk, 1969, no.33
This work by George Stubbs, widely recognised as the finest painter of horses that ever lived, is one of relatively few subject pictures by the artist. The scene shows a tale from John Gay’s book of Fables, in which a farmer’s wife is startled on her way to the market. She has been so preoccupied with the thought of all the money to be made on her bounty of eggs, that she neglects her horse, ‘Blind Ball’, who, startled by a raven, falls. The eggs crash from the basket, and lie broken, their yolks clearly visible on the now wet ground. Such tales of misogynistic morality (remember Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’) were popular among artists in the eighteenth century. The English have always viewed horses with respect, and contemporary viewers would have abhorred the wife’s treatment of her animal.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the picture is the complex positioning of both horse and sitter. Despite the difficulty of painting a horse in the act of falling, Stubbs’ depiction is anatomically perfect, and conveys both movement and anguish. Such skill was due to the fact that Stubbs understood horses inside-out – literally. In the 1750s he personally dissected numerous horses, each time making careful drawings of the results. He had also conducted human dissections, in York, for which he earned himself a

gruesome reputation. But such training gave Stubbs an enormous advantage amongst his contemporaries, and he was perfectly placed to meet the growing demand among English aristocrats to supplement portraits of themselves with portraits of their horses (and in instances their dogs).

This work also shows Stubbs talent for harmonious composition, which thus allows the viewer to follow the moral narrative with ease. Our eye is first drawn to the fallen horse, which is dramatically offset by the dark background of the trees. We are then led from the wife’s glance and raised hand towards the raven, which is implausibly large, so that we can see its open beak silhouetted against the sky. This fable was painted on three occasions by Stubbs, each time on a different medium, and with many variations in each version. The first was on enamel, and dated 1782, in which year it was exhibited at the Royal Academy (now in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool). The present picture is the second version, done in 1783. The final example, from 1786, is on board, and is in the Yale Center for British Art.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.