George Stubbs's painting, "Haymakers," is one of those archetypal images that stick firmly in memory. It is classically and simply satisfactory. When you come back to look at it again, it doesn't disappoint.
It works on several levels. It is almost a manual of the various human roles played by 18th-century farmworkers involved in the gathering of hay and its loading onto a wagon ready to be taken to the barn. The dynamic (almost, in fact, balletic) disposition of the figures is, however, scrupulously contrived so that not only do they perform their various functions, but they also build into a triangular composition of almost frozen stability. They form a picture.
Reality is counterbalanced by artificiality. Movement is counterweighted with stillness. Verticals, horizontals, and angles interplay, while, at the same time, the forks and rakes are the necessary tools of this agricultural labor.
Stubbs is known as one of the greatest painters of horses. The working horses in "Haymakers" are not the painting's main focus. But Stubbs understood precisely the patient, contained energy of these waiting beasts. They are poised, yet obediently ready for the instant when their powerful forward momentum will break up the scene and the hefty hay load will lumber and rumble after them across the fields.
This masterpiece of rural (and indelibly English) art is part of "Stubbs: A Celebration" at London's Tate Britain (until Jan. 14, 2007, and later to be shown at the Frick Collection in New York City, Feb. 14 to May 27).
This exhibition marks the 200th anniversary of the artist's death and illustrates the full scope of his art – horses, wild animals, people, and country life. "Haymakers" shows Stubbs's striking differences from some of his artist-contemporaries, such as Reynolds and Gainsborough. Their fashionable society portraiture involved elegant flatteries alien to Stubbs's down-to-earth picture of humankind.
Stubbs's squires and laborers belong to a rustic, rather than an urban, hierarchy. They are not aristocratic studio poseurs, demanding images of themselves that elevate or exaggerate their social status.
In his essayabout the exhibition – which he curated – Alex Kidson, curator of British Art at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, suggests that Stubbs, the son of a Liverpool currier, turned to painting animals because he disliked the pretentiousness of portraiture.
The result was that when Stubbs chose to paint people, they were of his own social class – "people that handled rather than owned animals.... His paintings seldom idealize or beautify them, but afford them their own space and dignity."