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A royal ‘Zebra’ by George Stubbs

“Zebra” by George Stubbs

Yale Center for British Art

“Zebra” by George Stubbs

NEW HAVEN — Do zebras see only in black and white? I have always wondered. If color were in their repertoire it would be almost disappointing — a great, cosmic redundancy. I have been told that their patterned camouflage functions almost like barcode, so that a zebra foal — programmed to recognize its mother’s stripes — can locate her even in the strobe-like chaos of a crowded, moving herd.

Being slightly obsessed with all things striped, I am very partial to this picture, and seek it out whenever I visit New Haven, where it hangs, prominently, in the beautiful Yale Center for British Art.

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It was painted by George Stubbs in 1763. Stubbs (1724-1806) was the son of a currier and leather-seller who, with his mother’s help, taught himself to draw and paint in his late teens. He was a passionate anatomist — he even etched a human embryo for a book on midwifery. But he became best known — will be forever known — for his pictures of horses (including many famous equine anatomical studies).

He was English: Surely zebras were beyond his ken? Did he basically invent this creature, just as his German forebear, Albrecht Durer, invented a rhinoceros on the basis of (pretty useful, it turns out) hearsay?

Not at all. This zebra was one of London’s more privileged inhabitants in the 1760s. A gift to Queen Charlotte, it grazed on the grounds of Buckingham Palace, then known as Old Buckingham House.

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It arrived from Africa on the HMS Terpsichore, after a grueling trip that saw its fellow zebra — and potential mate — fall ill and die.

Stubbs may not have been given to inventing zoology. But when it came to botany he was less hidebound by empirical observation. The background of this picture, so green and bosky it all but invites a bout of swooning in the gloaming, was entirely Stubbs’s projection. The zebra’s actual habitat, the fields by Buckingham palace, would have been rather more austere, although it afforded unexpectedly good views into the queen’s bathroom.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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