'Stubbs’s portrayal is one of the subtlest and most poignant commentaries on the troubling displacements that were accruing from the development of a global empire'

Zebra, 1763, by George Stubbs (1724–1806), 40½in by 50¼in, Yale Center for British Art, USA


Amy Meyers says:

I find this beautiful portrayal of a female zebra one of the most moving works in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art. It speaks eloquently to the tension inherent in Stubbs’s depictions of animals as the objective creations of a dispassionate empiricist bent on the acquisition of knowledge. Although a dedicated student of Nature, who engaged in the cruel sacrifice of animals to advance his understanding of their anatomy, Stubbs’s representation of the zebra is far more than a detached scientific examination of the animal’s form. Posing quietly in profile, she looks uncomfortably out of place, her black-and-white striped coat exposing her starkly against the dark English wood, her quizzical and forlorn expression disturbingly affecting. To my mind, Stubbs’s portrayal is one of the subtlest and most poignant commentaries on the troubling displacements that were accruing from the development of a global empire.

Amy Meyers is the Director of the Yale Center for British Art, which reopens on May 11, 2016

John McEwen comments on Zebra:

This zebra, the second seen in England, was presented to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, in 1762. Brought from the Cape of Good Hope by Sir Thomas Adams as a belated wedding present, it was placed on free public view in the royal menagerie. ‘some Account of the Zebra, or painted African Ass, lately brought over and presented to her Majesty’ was published in the July issue of The London Magazine. ‘Numbers of people’ had been to see ‘one of the most beautiful creatures in the world… now generally feeding in a paddock near her majesty’s house [Buckingham House (later Palace) bought that year].’ An illustration showed the zebra with a groom.

Stubbs’s ground-breaking drawings of the Anatomy of a Horse stood him in good stead with the zebra, painted from life but set against an English wood, with enough sunny dapple and mysterious depths to suggest what he innocently imagined to be its forest home in Africa.

George III (‘Farmer George’) and the Queen were an uxorious and, worst of all, unglamorous couple and ownership of the ‘African ass’ aroused much robust satire, in various contexts, on the theme of the ‘Ass’ and the ‘Queen’s Ass’ for several decades after the zebra’s death in 1772:

‘A sight such as this surely was never seen:
Who the deuce would not gaze at the A– of a Q–?
What prospect so charming!—
What scene can surpass?
The delicate sight of her M–’s A–?’

The zebra ended up as a travelling stuffed exhibit. its portrait never left stubbs’s studio.