Kimbell Art Museum acquires Stubbs masterpiece

George Stubbs, Mares and Foals Belonging to the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, c. 1761–62. Oil on canvas, 39 x 74 in. (99 x 187 cm). Kimbell Art Museum. Acquired in memory of Ben J. Fortson (1932–2024)

The Kimbell Art Museum has acquired acclaimed British painter George Stubbs’s Mares and Foals Belonging to the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke.

Widely regarded as the finest painter of animals in the history of European art, Stubbs (1724- 1806) is best known for his paintings of horses, which transcend historical genres to achieve rare pictorial refinement and emotional resonance.

The painting entering the Kimbell’s collection is one of the principal, and likely earliest, works in a celebrated, innovative series that has been called the artist’s crowning achievement: paintings depicting friezes of brood mares and their offspring. Mares and Foals Belonging to the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke waspainted between about 1761 and 1762.

The acquisition, along with that of Thomas Gainsborough’s painting Going to Market, Early Morning (c. 1773), purchased by the Kimbell in 2023, significantly elevates the Kimbell’s holdings of eighteenth-century British paintings, which Velma and Kay Kimbell favored when initially building their collection. The painting is on view in the Kimbell’s Louis I. Kahn Building.

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“With a mandate to collect only works of major historical and aesthetic importance, the Kimbell is the natural home for this masterpiece,” said Eric Lee, director of the Kimbell Art Museum. “I am sure that it will become an audience favorite. Visitors to the museum will relish the multidimensional depiction of mares and foals – alive with subtle drama, imbued with tenderness, and fascinating in its expression of the individual personalities of each horse.”

In the picture, a mature bay mare commands the center of a group of two other mares and three foals, who nuzzle close to their mothers. The painting, whichis slightly more than six feet long by three feet tall, is set within a springtime landscape at what is probably the viscount’s family estate of Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire, now Borough of Swindon, with verdant green parkland, cloudy sky, and a broad, dark gray stretch of water providing spatial interest beyond the long, slender legs of the horses. Highly naturalistic, the horses are lifelike in their anatomical forms and poses. While the overall mood is tranquil and domestic as the horses gently commune with each other, the cloudy sky and the wide, sparkling eyes of the mares add an element of drama and nobility to the composition.

The titular 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke, Frederick St. John (1732–1787), was one of Stubbs’s most important early patrons. The Kimbell painting seems to be the earliest commission of this virtually unprecedented subject; it is probably the work that Stubbs exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1762. Soon, other members of Bolingbroke’s circle of aristocratic horse enthusiasts and fellow statesmen of the Whig political party commissioned similar compositions on the theme of brood mares and their offspring, many doubtless depicting the patrons’ own horses. Stubbs’s equestrian paintings – along with his portrayals of rural life and of other animals – were an especially delightful and sophisticated expression of the pastimes of the British nobility and landed gentry. Patrons could hang such works alongside fashionable portraits and Old Master paintings in their town or country houses, where vast fields, parklands, stables, and studs reflected their love of hunting and sporting life.

Stubbs was then, and is today, recognized for his unrivaled understanding of equine anatomy and unsurpassed ability to record not only the appearance of individual animals but also their temperaments. His genius in understanding the horse arose from anatomical study and from his apparent empathy for the character of each horse and his ability to express its exquisite beauty. His skill extended to landscapes that enhanced the mood, composition, and legibility of the animal subjects.

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Mares and Foals Belonging to the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke remained in the family collection at Lydiard Tregoze until it was sold at auction in 1943 and shortly thereafter entered the collection of Mrs. John Arthur Dewar, of the whisky distillery family, who also owned Henry Raeburn’s Allen Brothers (Portrait of James and John Lee Allen), which entered the Kimbell collection in 2002. The Kimbell acquired Mares and Foals Belonging to the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke from a private collection through London-based art dealers Simon C. Dickinson Ltd. The painting joins Stubbs’ Lord Grosvenor’s Arabian Stallion with a Groom, a work acquired by the Kimbell in 1981. Mares and Foals Belonging to the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke was previously on view at the Kimbell in 2004–05, when it was on loan to the exhibition Stubbs and the Horse.

The Kimbell Art Foundation acquired Mares and Foals Belonging to the 2nd Viscount Bolingbroke in memory of Ben J. Fortson (1932–2024), who passed away in May and whose leadership was instrumental in the Kimbell’s growth. Mr. Fortson served on the board of directors of the Kimbell Art Foundation from 1964 until his death and was the foundation’s longtime executive vice president and chief financial officer. He will be forever remembered for stewarding the Kimbell’s investments and finances and for being the driving force behind the building of the museum’s Renzo Piano Pavilion, which opened in 2013 and houses the museum’s temporary exhibitions and permanent collections of Asian, African, and ancient American art.

Information for this article was provided by the Kimbell Art Museum. More information can be found on the museum’s website.