The subject of this painting relates the fate of a farmer's wife who is riding to market, preoccupied by the thought of profits to be earned from her pannier full of eggs. Startled by the cawing of a raven, she causes her aging horse to stumble and her eggs tumble out of the basket and break.
This narrative is taken from book I of John Gay's Fables, first published in 1727. Gay's continually popular Fables were nearly as common a source for illustrators as Jacob Cats' sixteenth-century emblem books were in the Low Countries. Stubbs' design derives from John Wootton's illustration of Fable XXXVII, first engraved by B. Baron for Gay's 1727 publication.
Stubbs is known to have painted three versions of this subject, each on a different support: the first, enamel on an oval Wedgwood tablet, signed and dated 1782 and exhibited at the Royal Academy that same year (28 x 37 3/8 in.; Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, Liverpool; B. Tattershall, op. Cit., p. 84, no. 26); the second, the present picture, oil on panel, signed and dated 1783; and the third, oil on millboard, signed and dated 1786 (26 x 38 in.; Yale Center for British Art; J. Egerton, op. cit., p. 172, no. 129). The subject, which is unusual in Stubbs' oeuvre, with its bucolic, anecdotal theme, may have been suggested to him by a friend or favored patron - perhaps Mrs. Elizabeth Armistead, then the mistress of Charles James Fox and later his wife, who purchased the enamel version. The present work may, in turn, have been commissioned by an admirer of the enamel (exhibited the previous year).
Stubbs' studio sale in 1807 included both 'the original design for the subject' and a 'capital high finished coloured drawing' (27 May, lot 37, and 26 May, lot 31). While the difficulty of adding detail to enamel after firing made preliminary studies an essential part of the enameling process, these studies (now untraced) could equally relate to either of his subsequent re-workings of the subject in oil, as, rather than simply reproducing the subject, Stubbs continued to develop and experiment with it.
While the landscape in the enamel version is filled with an unusual amount of picturesque rural detail (including an irregular paling fence, a church, a windmill and a group of cottages), that in the present work is more characteristic of Stubbs' treatment of landscape, in its airy, relatively unadorned state. In the third version, the tree against which the farmer's wife is silhouetted is replaced by a weeping willow, often associated in this period with rueful subjects.
We are grateful to Mrs. Judy Egerton for her assistance with this catalogue entry.