At the show with the killer: American Psycho visits George Stubbs’ mini-show at the Met
George Stubbs, Turf, with Jockey up, at Newmarket, 1765. Oil on canvas, 96.5 × 124.5cm. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
cropped to image, recto, unframed
George Stubbs, Two Gentlemen Going a Shooting, with a View of Creswell Crags, Taken on the Spot,1767. Oil on canvas, 101.6 × 127 cm. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Given by Paul Mellon in memory of his friend James Cox Brady, Yale College, Class of 1929.
George Stubbs, A Repose after Shooting, 1770. Oil on canvas, 102.2 × 128.3 cm. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Given by Paul Mellon in memory of his friend James Cox Brady, Yale College, Class of 1929.
George Stubbs, Lustre, held by a Groom, ca. 1762. Oil on canvas, 101.9 × 127 cm. Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
There is old money and new money and new money can buy old money. Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of acclaimed 1980s Wall Street frenzy novel American Psycho, would probably agree on that. A clue: his office at the investment firm he works for is adorned with a 18th century British painting by George Stubbs, a symbol of antiqued nowness, celebration of how time-honoured classiness and taste can be bought by with a quick signature on chequebooks or a fast credit card swipes.
The world of those privileged 1980s financial sharks (or wolves for that matter) might look very far from English 18th aristocracy like the one portrayed by Stubbs. Yet what the former ones do is swallowing everything luxury regardless of eras and geographies of origin, enjoying it with overflowing consumerist pleasure and quest for peer recognition.
It’s not only paintings of course. All the objects Bateman keeps are first of all his belongings, which are always acquired in view of their price, brand, or the exclusive retailer that sells them. There is no trace of their real stories. They get shuffled as they were cards, and Stubbs artwork is not spared this game. Here is how it makes its appearance in the book:
The Stubbs painting should probably go over the life-size Doberman that’s in the corner ($700 at Beauty and the Beast in Trump Tower) or maybe it would look better over the Pacrizinni antique table that sits next to the Doberman. I get up and move all these sporting magazines from the forties—they cost me thirty bucks apiece— that I bought at Funchies, Bunkers, Gaks and Gleeks, and then I lift the Stubbs painting off the wall and balance it on the table then sit back at my desk and fiddle with the pencils I keep in a vintage German beer stein I got from Man-tiques. The Stubbs looks good in either place.
George Stubbs owed his fame to his pictures of expensive horses, painted with scientific realism acquired from studying equine anatomy. Even though there is no indication in the novel of what the painting in Bateman’s office really depicts, we can fantasise it is one of Stubbs’ horses. Bateman must have liked to own this double symbol of wealth show off: an expensive commodity (the horse) within another expensive commodity (the painting).
Fast race horses also represent the great performance, a run towards a goal. From a poster in current exhibition of George Stubbs at the Metropolitan Museum, here is how a 18th Century English jockey speaks about his foal:
I was mounted on the noblest that the earth contains / had him under my care / and was borne by him over hill and dale / far outstripping the wings of the wind.
The distance between “old money” and “new money” bluntly reveals itself in these words. Nothing in Bateman is so romantic or fond of nature like in Stubbs’ view or his patrons’. Rather Bateman’s actions in the book reveal all the nihilism and individualism of the modern financial rich, who in the case of Bateman cannot even find real ecstasy in surpassing his colleagues in terms of success. As the book unravels, the reader realises that there is no real escape for such character but crude violence and miserable insanity.
September 11, 2015