Haymakers & Reapers, by George Stubbs, 1785

These two paintings could be advertisements for washing powder given the super-white and dirt-free nature of the workers' clothes. So what’s going on? They are strange paintings from England’s foremost painter to the aristocracy in the 18th century. Why did George Stubbs, who had made a lucrative career out of painting horses, hounds and the aristocracy, depart from the racing and hunting fraternity and turn to the fields, at the age of 60 years old. This painting is in Tate Britain, London.

Reapers by Stubbs
Haymakers by Stubbs
The Story

Haymakers and Reapers were probably not commissioned, as they were found in Stubbs’s house at the time of his death. Perhaps he was inspired by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, as both paintings are oil on wood, from 1785.

 

The two paintings show scenes of harvesting hay. The workers’ poses, costumes and expressions are painted with a precise economy, which, with seemingly little effort but great art, conveys that these are not quite ‘real’ people. The different stages of collecting hay are shown in the paintings. The yew tree on the right in the Reapers and left in the Haymakers help to frame the scene indicating that Stubbs produced them as a pair to be displayed together.

 

The dynamic of the paintings is intriguing. The workers go about their work as if they were modelling for Michelangelo: raking, hefting, reaching, the men in white shirts, the women in long dresses; they are as graceful as athletes. The farm workers wear their Sunday best. They are impeccably dressed; there is not a stain or patch on a coat.

 

The symbol of spiritual authority – a church steeple is shown on the horizon of the Reapers, and the terrestrial power, an overseer on his horse is positioned to the right of the workers.

 

This is a conventional portrait – with a difference.

 

 

 Picture Highlights

It is assumed that the two paintings were intended by Stubbs to be seen together.

 

They are beautifully constructed paintings. The frieze-like arrangement of the Reapers is harmonious - and the motion across the picture from left to right leads up to the overseer, whose triangle anchors the picture on the right-hand side. The shape of the workers is echoed in the tree line in pyramidal forms - as a formal bit of composition it is precise and compelling.

 

Representing people in spotless clothes is characteristic of Stubbs' paintings. It could be seen as pandering to the ruling class who wished to see their workers as clean and tidy. Alternatively, it could be seen as Stubbs deep understated egalitarianism - respect for the people he painted, and their contribution to society.

 

The Haymakers is dominated by choreography of the workers’ action. The workers appear frozen in time and action. The men are more realistically painted than the women. It is difficult to believe that the two women raking hay on the left can have needed to eke out a living working in the fields. Their dresses, looks and overall demeanour suggests perhaps a more leisured existence.

 

In the Haymakers the two women on the left are distinct individuals, their differences as sharply painted as their similarities. The third woman stands looking back at you. Hand on hip, she is challenging her 18th century audience to brush away their prejudices and acknowledge that she is different and has an attitude. The action pivots round her; she stands at the centre like a classical goddess. She looks out, inviting the viewer to witness activities that, through ritualistic repetition, have become as intrinsic to nature as are the seasons.

 

Shiny-coated shire horses stand blinkered in the midday sun, which melts the vista of English fields into a dreamy haze that contrasts with the clarity of the strangely elegant farm labourers in the foreground. Men and women rake and hoist hay onto a horse-drawn cart. In Reapers men and women gather and bind sheaves of wheat, while a supervisor on horseback looks on.

 

Stubbs admires rural workers just as he admires horses – and in both cases he seems to prefer the patient servant to the cold-eyed master. He does not prettify the labourers in Reapers and Haymakers to deny the realities of rural poverty: he does it to make them look heroic. Although fully dressed, they pose like classical nudes. This is more likely to be an attempt to dignify them than insult them.

 

There are also a number of unexplained elements to the painting that suggest a tension within the works.The clothes people wore in the 18th century were influenced by income and by fashion. Being poor did not mean living in rags. Even the very poorest had their best clothes for special occasions. Clothes helped define a person in the local community. The aim was self-respect within the proper station: women aspired to a five-shilling hat covered in black silk, men to silver-plated shoe-buckles at half-a-crown, or perhaps a watch, which they were unlikely to acquire unless their ticket came up in a watch-club raffle.

 

Stubbs' decision to dress his rural workers in posh clothes may be more subversive than has been recognised by art historians. Not everyone approved of well-dressed plebeians. In the eyes of the eighteenth-century élite (and probably most of Stubbs' clients), no group of working people was more guilty of sartorial extravagance than domestic servants. Snobbish complaints against servants were endlessly rehearsed in pamphlets, magazines, novels, plays and caricatures.

 

So precise is Stubbs in his fantasy images that the men’s breeches are impractically buttoned up, although in practice they would have had to undo some buttons to bend their knees.

 

The look the man on the horse in Reapers exchanges with the woman below him is full of significance. He is using his position of power to dominate the woman. The two workers on the left look up and give him a stare that suggests their disgust at his leering. His position on the horse and his stare add a tension that was rarely found in the paintings of the rural idyll. We do not know why Stubbs included this episode. In his field trips he possibly saw this happen and was concerned about the way the woman was being treated. It was also common knowledge that men in positions of power regularly sexually abused their women workers. It is reasonable to speculate that by creating this scene he is leaving the viewer to make up their minds about a society that was far from being without tensions of one sort or another.

 

In the 18th century the pictures would have been understood as an idealised vision romanticising a past that never existed. The pictures present this timeless, stately, clean, relaxing vision of pastoral life - good, honest labour being carried out by good honest people working in a benevolent society. And the skies are blue and the sun is shining. It's the kind of scene you might put on a tourist promotion calendar.

 

You have to put that against the reality of life in the late eighteenth century. The industrial revolution is beginning to crank up and social and economic upheaval is going on all around.

Whistlejacket by Stubbs
The Bigger Picture

George Stubbs lived at a time when there was a clear hierarchy in terms of art genre.  According to traditional art history, before the mid-18th century the British simply couldn't paint. The best artists at work in England were all foreign, from Holbein and Van Dyck to Orazio Gentileschi and Peter Lely. In this account, the first original native painter was Hogarth, and the first genre to be distinctively British was landscape painting. Even in this we were no better than we ought to be: landscape was a lowly genre, some way below the salt, while history painting with its moral and didactic qualities lorded it at the head of the table. As Sir Joshua Reynolds, the man who sought above all others to put British painting on a par with the rest of Europe, said: "A mere copier of nature can never produce anything great."

 

George Stubbs was never a landscape painter as such but he often included a landscape as a backdrop to his paintings of horses and their owners, but this was secondary to the people and animals. His forte was equestrian art, which was included within the genre of 'sporting art'.  Like landscape paintings this was looked down upon by the critics and connoisseurs, probably due to its racing patronage. As it was the hunting, shooting and racing gentry who were Stubbs' greatest patrons, he tended to be overlooked as a serious artist.

 

Stubbs lived in an ordered patrician society pre the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The belief system can be summarised as follows: it was expected that everyone respected and adhered to the values of this society. Wealth was provided by God and this created peace, ease and sports. The landowner was there to ensure the smooth running of his estate.  The poor are beneficiaries of the rich serving to compliment their moral worth and superiority.  The landlord set the rules and the poor followed them. Everyone in the countryside lived in a rural idyll.  The rural labourer was happy, well fed and content with his and her lots. Everyone in this fantasy had both a stake and a shared faith in the stability of the prevailing social order.

 

Yet this was a total myth. There is plenty of evidence of unrest, social crime, gruelling poverty and unrest. The task of the creative artist was denying its existence.  He had to convey a happy rural life.

 

Within his paintings we get a glimpse of how Stubbs saw the world.  In  Mares and Foals in a River Landscape (on display in the Tate)  Stubbs incorporates horses into the landscape by using a subtle counter-change of tones to integrate them with the background: he contrasts the light profile of the white horse against a dark cloud in order to counterbalance the dark profiles of chestnut mares against the light sky. This tonal exchange is mirrored in the layout of the landscape where the bright billowing clouds are echoed by the dark forms of the tree. Even foals seem to draw milk from their mothers in much the same way that the land draws sustenance from the river. This is an idyllic vision of a Utopian world uncorrupted by the presence of man.

 

Artists produced work within this set of values, yet from time to time hinted at another world beyond their patrons’ fantasies. Stubbs had a great deal of sympathy for the stable boy, servant, and rural workers.  This is reflected in the fact that he always painted them with as much care as he painted the aristocracy that commissioned his works.  He made sure that they were clean, well dressed and presented in statuesque poses, never sweating or exhausted. His depiction of labour is of a symbolic and non-utilitarian kind.

FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT STUBBS

 

Details of George Stubbs' life are very thin. Here is what we know.

 

Contemporary accounts of his life say he was single-minded, unconventional and embraced the democratic ideas of his period. His self-portrait, above (currently on display in the National Portrait Gallery, London) shows him as bull-necked and double chinned, without a wig; a wary austere-looking man lacking all pretensions.

 

Born in 1724, the son of a Liverpool leather merchant, George Stubbs was largely self-taught as an artist.  George Stubbs studied anatomy at York Hospital, illustrating Dr John Burton’s Essay Towards a Complete New System of Midwifery (1751) with drawings made from dissections at which he had assisted.

 

In 1756 Stubbs started studying the anatomy of the horse by dissecting corpses. The fruits of this were drawings, engraved by Stubbs and published in The Anatomy of the Horse (1766). This was a book of engravings that illustrated the horse in layers from its skin down to its skeleton. With a ready supply of cadavers from a nearby tannery, he suspended horses on hooks from the roof, positioning the animals in the poses he required. He then carefully 'peeled' the creatures, removing their layers of skin, then muscles until only their skeletons remained. At each stage he meticulously recorded his dissections from a range of different angles. It took Stubbs eighteen months to finish his drawings and notes but, on completion he could not find a publisher. With typical determination he took on the task of engraving the illustrations himself, and after eight years work 'The Anatomy of The Horse' was finally published in 1766 - and it is still in print today.

 

In 1758 Stubbs settled in London, where his anatomical drawings attracted the attention of wealthy patrons with a passion for breeding and racing horses. In 1759-60 he painted three large hunting, shooting and racing canvases for the 3rd Duke of Richmond at Goodwood House in Sussex. In 1762 he painted the celebrated Grovesnor Hunt for the 1st Earl Grosvenor. The same year Stubbs painted his first commissions for the 2nd Marquis of Rockingham: the near-life-size Whistlejacket and the frieze- like Mares and Foals without a background. Horse attacked by a lion, 1762, was also painted for Rockingham.

 

George Stubbs was the finest horse painter that England has ever produced, combining a profound knowledge of horse anatomy with psychological insight, naturalistic observation and a calm, classical sense of composition. Whistlejacket, probably his most famous horse painting, was commissioned for King George III. 

 

In preparing the painting Stubbs spent 18 months living in a remote farmhouse in Lincolnshire surrounded by the bodies of dead horses.  Stubbs is interested in the inner being of Whistlejacket, his character, his self, and that is what he captures here: the incredible tension, energy and sensitivity in the way the horse rears, the electricity in the taut muscles, the look of something that might be terror in his face.

 

Compare Whistlejacket with the National Gallery's other, earlier great equestrian portrait, Charles I on Horseback, in Room 21 - and you have the before and after of British constitutional history in front of your very eyes. Charles's horse stands obediently still beneath his high and mighty burden, but no king will ever saddle Whistlejacket. We might still tolerate the monarchy, Stubbs' picture says - but we will never let them hold the reins of power again. For Stubbs, the horse is a free spirit confined by an oppressive human society.

 

Stubbs method and views reflected the concerns of the Enlightenment which encouraged a healthy scepticism and questioning about everything from religion and politics to causes of disease.  Stubbs mixed in this circle and was friends with Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Wright of Derby and Wedgewood. All were part of a group known as the Lunar Society of Birmingham.

 

He experimented with mixed method engraving techniques and, with the help of his friend Josiah Wedgwood, in painting in enamel colours on Wedgwood ceramic supports. From the early 1790s Stubbs’s financial difficulties were ameliorated by the patronage of the Prince of Wales (later George IV), for whom he painted at least eighteen oils. The current Royal Collection of paintings has 16 paintings by Stubbs acquired by George IV – more than from any other English artist.

 

Stubbs exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1761 to 1774 and was its President in 1772-3. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1775-1803, becoming an Academician in 1781.


 

As the majority of Stubbs' paintings were commissioned for private collections, and remained in country houses for many years, his work was only known in a narrow circle of aristocratic sportsmen. It was not until the 20th century, when many of his works came to market, that his skill came to greater attention bringing ultimate fame.

 

George Stubbs died in London in 1806.

 

Enamel on Wedgwood biscuit earthenware plaque by Stubbs