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Work of the Week: A lion attacking a horse

A lion attacking a horse (c. 1765)

This dramatic image of animals engaged in mortal combat was a favourite subject for George Stubbs, one of England’s foremost animal painters at the close of the eighteenth century.  For some thirty years, from 1762, the theme of a lion stalking or attacking a horse was explored seventeen times by Stubbs, in various media. All these works displayed the artist’s superior anatomical knowledge.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s painting is generally accepted as dating from shortly before the publication of Stubbs’s influential volume of engravings The Anatomy of the Horse in 1766. Several scholars have argued that the statuesque qualities of the composition echo an ancient Roman marble showing a lion crouched in attack upon a horse’s back, which Stubbs could have studied during a visit to Rome in 1754.  A more romanticised, if apocryphal, tale of the origins of A lion attacking a horse was offered in an account of a short stop Stubbs made in North Africa during his return to England from Italy, published in The Sporting Magazine of May 1808: ‘One evening, while Stubbs and his friend were viewing the delightful scenery … a lion was observed at some distance, directing his way, with a slow pace, towards a white Barbary horse … the lion, finding him within his power, sprang in a moment, like a cat, on the back of the defenceless horse, threw him down, and instantly tore out his bowels’.

Whatever its origins, Stubbs’s dynamic painting is a perfect illustration of the manner in which, as outlined by Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), sublime terror ‘comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness, in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther, or rhinoceros’.

George Stubbs’ A lion attacking a horse (c. 1765) is now on display at NGV International in The Horse. Closes 8 Nov.

George Stubbs
A lion attacking a horse (c. 1765)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1949