Research point: Anatomy and George Stubbs

This research point is divided into two parts.

~ skeletal structure of the cat

~ skeletal structure of the cat

Firstly, we were asked to look at the skeletal structure of either a horse, dog or cat – I opted for felines as, although I’ve had cats most of my life, I know very little about their anatomy.

~ cat skeleton

~ cat skeleton

‘This agile creature has a skeletal system made up of 244 bones, with about 27 bones located in its tail, which helps with balance and movement’ (Montgomery, 2013). The cat has extra vertebrae in its lower back, thorax and tail which account for its enhanced mobility and flexibility (compared with humans). In addition, its collar bone isn’t attached to the shoulder joint, which allows it to squeeze itself through narrow spaces. Similarly, its shoulder blade is attached to the spine by muscles and ligaments, rather than by joints.  ‘The feline skeleton evolved for a lifestyle of speed and agility’  (Fascinating Animals, 2012).

~ skeleton of a cat

~ skeleton of a cat

Studying the skeletal structure, I was surprised to see how long the legs really are.  Every last part seems designed for maximum flexibility.  I discovered a tutorial on Deviantart which explains the structure in layman’s terms.  The author makes it clear that they are not an expert on the subject, but it does break down the component parts in a way that makes it easier to visualise when one wants to draw a cat. Of course, the difficulty comes when trying to capture these parts in motion.

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~ Lord Grosvenor's Sweet William in a Landscape, 1779

~ Lord Grosvenor’s Sweet William in a Landscape, 1779

The second part of the research point asked us to look at the anatomical drawings of George Stubbs (1724-1806), and to consider how these informed his finished pieces.

The son of a Liverpool tanner, Stubbs began drawing animal bones as a child, in addition to helping his father prepare horse hides. Despite a brief apprenticeship to a painter, he was largely self-taught.  His early interest in anatomy developed into an absolute fascination – first through his study and subsequent engravings of human foetuses, in York, and then via observations for his treatise The Anatomy of the Horse (published in 1766). In 1756, Stubbs rented a farmhouse in Lincolnshire, with his partner Mary Spencer. There, he spent 18 months dissecting horses (the bodies were supplied by nearby tanneries), making close observations of each layer, from skin to muscle to skeleton. He rigged up a system whereby he could suspend horses from hooks in the roof, positioning them in the poses he required (Egerton, 2013).

~ Anatomy of the Horse, 1766

~ Anatomy of the Horse, 1766

~ front view of the horse

~ front view of the horse

Once his work was completed, Stubbs was unable to find an engraver willing to take on the job of engraving plates for publication, so he took it on himself, dedicating the next eight years to the task. ‘The difficulty that he faced was to show clearly the different textures of vein, muscle and bone using a medium that is essentially ‘linear” (British Museum, 2013).

~ horse from the rear

~ horse from the rear

Studying Stubbs’ anatomical drawings, I am struck by how closely his finished paintings resemble them. The drawings themselves are very complete.  Both his studies and his finished work display a clearly defined musculature, and a thorough understanding of the skeletal structure.  In many ways, Stubbs was a product of his time.  He lived in the midst of the Enlightenment, a movement which emphasised the importance of empirical observation. ‘The search for a “science of man” led some thinkers to search for the physiology of a body without a soul’ (Wilde, 2013). This sums up my attitude to Stubbs – his work seems studied, clinical, and detached.  Much is written about the way he brought art and science together, but, for me, despite his obvious technical abilities, much of his work feels diagrammatical.  That said, many of his horses seem somewhat exaggerated – slightly larger and slightly longer than the real thing.  Almost like an advertisement for a horse – glossy and impressive, but ultimately lifeless.  Perhaps making many of his studies from suspended horses contributed to this ‘frozen’ quality.  Even in his paintings, the figures seem posed and static, devoid of motion.

~ Horses Fighting, 1791

~ Horses Fighting, 1791

~ Hambletonian, Rubbing Down, c.1800

~ Hambletonian, Rubbing Down, c.1800

Whistlejacket, 1762

Whistlejacket, 1762

I think that having anatomical knowledge of one’s subject can only be a good thing – but I don’t think it’s essential.  I think looking is essential. Looking at shapes, connections, direction of movement – all these are more important to me than possessing knowledge of where each bone and sinew occur. Character and essence matter just as much – possibly more so. If some degree of accuracy is lost in the attempt to achieve these, then I feel that’s a worthwhile compromise.

References:

British Msuem (2013), George Stubbs, an engraving from The Anatomy of the Horse [Online], Available at http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/g/george_stubbs,_an_engraving_fr.aspx (Accessed 18 August 2013).

Egerton, J (2013), Stubbs, George [Online], Available at http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T081954?q=george+stubbs&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit (Accessed 18 August 2013).

Fascinating Animals (2012), ‘Skeletal System – Skeletons, Joints & Bones, Part 2’, Fascinating Animals, 6 May 2012 [Online], Available at http://facinatingamazinganimals.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/skeletal-system-skeletons-joints-bones-part-two/ (Accessed 18 August 2013).

Montgomery, J.H. (2013), How Stuff Works [Online], Available at http://science.howstuffworks.com/zoology/mammals/cat1.htm (Accessed 18 August 2013).

Wilde, R. (2013), The Enlightenment [Online], Available at http://europeanhistory.about.com/od/thenineteenthcentury/a/enlightenment.htm (Accessed 18 August 2013).

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