Tracking Tigers in Life and in Art

tiger painting
Stubbs painted only a single tiger, but in three versions.

by Brooke Chilvers

The first tiger in my life was Shere Khan, the “chief among tigers” in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.  

But the fearsome Bengal villain was per its original telling – in my case a Reader’s Digest edition with a dozen black-and-white reproductions of the color originals by French Art Deco animalier artist Paul Jouve – not the increasingly white-washed incarnations of today’s animated character. 

Yet it was lions – specifically Asiatic lions – that drove me (and thus my husband) to Kipling country, to India’s Gir National Park in the alcohol “dry” and vegetarian state of Gujarat. 

Surviving in a dusty oasis surrounded by countless humans, these 650 lions are the world’s last wild population of Panthera leo persica. Despite pre-dawn risings, moonlight drives, and a distant roar (my spouse swears it was a loudspeaker and recording), alas, Dear Readers, we failed to spot a cat.  My smuggled gin poured into iceless tonic was poor consolation. 

Turning my attention instead to tigers, I somehow convinced us to return to the country of my husband’s life-threatening double pneumonia. This time, to observe the Bengal tiger in Kazaringi National Park, we would travel down the Brahmaputra River in the far-eastern state of Assam. 

We visited Kazaringi three times, from three directions, using three modes of transportation – jeep, rivercraft, and on the backs of pachyderms – and observed wild elephant and water buffalo, Hoolock gibbons, sambar deer, and barasingha. 

One morning, at a goldening moment of dawn, straddling the howdah strapped to the old bull elephant, we stood silent among great one-horned rhinoceroses draped in a purple fog. But no tigers.  

These days, I  content myself with paintings of striped cats, tracking down Delacroix’s A Young Tiger Playing with its Mother (1830) in the Met, Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm (1891) in London’s National Gallery, and Rubens’s The Tiger Hunt (1615) in the Beaux-Arts Museum in Rennes. 

I recently recalled a painting of a tiger by George Stubbs (1724–1806) I saw years ago in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA). In his long career, Stubbs painted the same tiger in three versions. More familiar are his violent lion scenes in wild landscapes (actually the Derbyshire limestone gorge, Creswell Crags) of terrified horses defending themselves, such as Horse Attacked by a Lion (1769) in London’s Tate.

tiger skeleton
Stubbs was working on a comparative anatomy of the human, chicken, and tiger when he died.

Stubbs’s famous Bengal tigress was presented to George Spencer, 4th Duke of Marlborough, for his personal menagerie at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, by Lord Clive, Governor of Bengal, when, in March, 1762, he was made Baron Clive of Plassey.   Recently discovered archives, in the form of bills from the butcher, show the cat consumed 24 pounds of meat every few days, at a cost of three shillings per delivery, “with an occasional head thrown in for fourpence.”  

Stubbs famously depicted the gentry’s country life. His new brand of portraiture conveyed the magnate’s pride in the stewardship of his estate: Breeding cattle, winning racehorses, and foxhounds; his family, friends, and numerous servants, including jockeys, stable boys, gamekeepers, farm workers, and stud grooms. And his celebrated menagerie with its kangaroo, cheetah, and tiger. 

The cat’s fate is unknown but one can guess, as the self-taught Stubbs began his career as an anatomical illustrator. A knowledge addict in an age of theses and theories, he embarked on his momentous Anatomy of the Horse – the first anatomy of any animal other than human. It took a farrier’s son to bear the bloody, malodorous task of “flaying” horses in order to illustrate them, bleeding the beast to death, then filling its veins and arteries with warm tallow to maintain their shape. 

Published in London in 1766, the oeuvre consists of 18 plates and 50,000 words that describe the horse’s skeleton, muscles, and blood vessels.  Although Stubbs didn’t illustrate the bowels or organs, his book served as an invaluable textbook when Britain established its first veterinary college in 1791. He was working on a comparative anatomy of the human, chicken – and tiger – when he died.  

In 1995, the long underrated “sporting artist,” best suited for the walls of horse-country estates, became a museum-worthy “fine artist” of international interest when his nearly life-size painting of a tiger sold for $5.09 million. It had only taken 200 years.  

With that work sold, and another still hanging in Blenheim Palace, my only chance to see a Stubbs tiger painting was in the VMFA’s Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art. Interestingly, Mellon’s very first purchase of a painting, in 1939, was Stubbs’s Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad, today in the Yale Center for British Art.  

Arriving at the newly renovated gallery on the third floor, I found Stubbs’s Charger with a Groom Black and White Spaniel Following a Scent, and others.  But no Tiger, despite its inclusion in the 2018 catalog, A Sporting Vision!

Tracking down Dr. Sylvain Cordier, VMFA’s refreshing Paul Mellon Curator and Head of the Department of European Art, I asked, “Where is my last-chance Stubbs Tiger?”

Hélas,” he said, “The tigress is being held back and reserved as a star in the future gallery of 18th century European art.”

And when might that occur?  The next few years?  In my lifetime?  Ah, merde.


Brooke Chilvers thanks Patti St. Clair for generously including Brooke and her husband in so many events at the VFMA’s 2021 Fine Arts & Flowers exhibition.