Born: Liverpool, United Kingdom
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Stubbs was born in Liverpool in 1724, the son of John Stubbs and his wife, Mary. At the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to Hamlet Winstanley, a former friend of Arthur Devis, but left him after only a few weeks. Apparently self-taught, he practiced as a portrait painter in various northern centers, settling in York about 1745. Obsessed with anatomy, which he studied at York Hospital and taught privately to medical students, he was commissioned to illustrate John Burton’s Essay Towards a Complete New System of Midwifery, 1751, which necessitated his learning to etch. In 1754 he traveled to Rome, where Richard Wilson was then working, allegedly “to convince himself that Nature is superior to all art,” but nothing is known about his studies there.
After returning to Liverpool in about 1756, Stubbs began the studies that were to result in The Anatomy of the Horse, 1766. By then he was living with Mary Spencer, with whom he had a son; Mary was his companion until his death, but they were apparently never married. After completing his dissections and drawings, Stubbs came to London about 1758 to find a reproductive engraver; failing in his purpose, he eventually made the plates himself. He had settled on Somerset Street by 1764.
During the 1760s Stubbs acquired an immense reputation as a painter. He worked on all scales, occasionally producing huge works, and he painted in this decade racing, hunting, and shooting scenes, portraits of horses and wild animals, his first dramatic subjects on the theme of a horse attacked by a lion, and conversation pieces mostly including horses. His patrons were distinguished, and he exhibited from 1762 at the Society of Artists, of which he became president in 1772, but as an animal painter he was not made a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts and did not switch to the exhibitions there until 1775. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1780, but, though he was voted a full Academician in 1781, his election was not ratified since he never supplied a diploma picture. This was probably the result of his displeasure at the unfavorable hanging in 1781 of his enamel paintings. In the 1770s Stubbs’ reputation suffered. This was partly because of his categorization as a mere animal painter, and partly because of his absorption in experiments with enamel colors, a process that led to a fruitful association with Josiah Wedgwood, whose ceramic tablets he found the best support for larger paintings.
In the 1780s Stubbs turned to the fashionable genre of rural scenes and to a new technique based on mezzotint, but his products were too refined to be popular. In 1790 the Turf Review commmissioned a series of portraits of famous racehorses, to be engraved by his son; sixteen were exhibited in 1794, but none was sold and the enterprise lapsed. In the early 1790s Stubbs also executed commissions for the Prince of Wales, but the ensuing last decade of his life seems to have been a period of financial difficulty. During this time he devoted himself to his most ambitious project, a study of the comparative anatomy of a man, a tiger, and a chicken. He died in London almost unnoticed on 10 July 1806.