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.
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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