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LONDON — Joshua Reynolds and George Stubbs were two ambitious, middle-class men who relied on the passions and vanity of 18th-century England’s monied upper classes to make their fortunes.
Each made his name with portrait painting. One specialized in humans, the other in horses, and they shared patrons, including the Prince of Wales, who was to become King George IV, and the horse-loving Second Marquess of Rockingham. Now, the two painters have another thing in common — each is the subject of his own summer show here.
“Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity,” which runs until Sept. 18 at Tate Britain, takes a look at the social-climbing, self-aggrandizing painter whose portrait fees were the highest in London and who eventually became president of London’s Royal Academy of Arts.
A few minutes’ drive north of the Tate, the National Gallery is showing “Stubbs and the Horse,” a look at Stubbs’ meticulously detailed paintings of racehorses and heroic portraits of the animals, in the manner of ancient Greek statues. The show runs until Sept. 25.
It’s not surprising that Reynolds was so popular among the rich: He made all his subjects look grand, including himself. The show begins with a room hung with self-portraits, which Reynolds used as marketing tools. He painted himself as an artist, academic (carefully posed near a marble bust), knight and shepherd in a nativity scene, all to ensure he remained in the public’s view.
“He was conventional. His specialty was aggrandizing the very grand and the ruling classes,” says Philip Mansel, the author and historian, whose latest book, “Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II,” will be published in the U.S. by Yale University Press next month. “If you had your portrait painted by Reynolds, it proved you had the money to afford him — and that you were intellectually correct.”
Reynolds’ portraits of military and intellectual celebrities show their subjects at the height of their powers. There’s Augustus Hervey, the third Earl of Bristol, whose face and chest are spotlighted by a flash of gunpowder. He stands against a backdrop of smoking ruins after a victory in Havana. Portraits of Reynolds’ intellectual pals show the 18th-century popular novelist Laurence Sterne and Samuel Johnson, the famed lexicographer and idol of Boswell.
The most glamorous portraits of all, not surprisingly, are of the ladies. There’s Lady Bampfylde, looking gorgeous — and slightly tragic — in her long white dress (her marriage was not a happy one), and the actress Kitty Fisher dressed as Cleopatra. Reynolds often dressed his subjects in elaborate costumes to give them a sense of grandeur.
Like Reynolds, Stubbs relied largely on the patronage of the great Whig dynasties of the time, who had money to spare and family members who needed glorifying on canvas. The Whigs were a political party generally opposed to the power of the monarchy, whose members mostly came from the era’s great noble houses.
Stubbs, a self-taught expert in horse anatomy, took advantage of the 18th-century aristocracy’s love of thoroughbreds. It was a time when horses were bought and sold rapidly, and breeding the fastest racehorses became an obsession among the wealthy.
Stubbs painted scenes from the turf and sport world — grooms, jockeys and fox-hunting scenes — as well as detailed, life-size portraits of horses. The heroism and dignity of these animals had never before been depicted on canvas. The show has been built around Whistlejacket, the iconic, life-size portrait of the horse belonging to the Second Marquess of Rockingham.
“Stubbs took the painting of the horse in 18th-century England onto a completely different plane,” says Susan Foister, who curated the show, “but he was not content to show the turf world only. He was never lacking in ambition, and during his career, raised horse painting to an heroic level.”
In addition to the life-size portraits, Stubbs painted his “Horse and Lion” pictures, grand depictions of the two animals fighting that recall antique, Hellenistic sculptures and prefigure the style of the Romantic painters Eugène Delacroix, William Blake and Henry Fuseli.
“Stubbs drew from the 18th-century philosophy of creating beauty through the depiction of fear,” says Foister, adding, “These paintings show a varied, extraordinary and ambitious artist.”