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The Dog in Art

Article Author: Scott Rose

Conneticut's Bruce Museum features the dog in art from the Renaissance to today by Scott Rose

Now and then, a dog comes across silly, so-called Homo sapiens who believe that spoiling puppies rotten is a 21st century development, and a dubious one at that.

Thankfully, art has been imitating life for as long as people have been pampering their canines. The resulting bounty is on display in the world-class exhibition "Best in Show: Dogs in Art from the Renaissance to the Present," at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut through August 27, moving to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston from October 1, 2006 through January 1, 2007.

The Bruce Museum sits on a wooded and landscaped hill in fair Greenwich. Modern sculptures as well as a Native American totem pole beautify the grounds. Just inside the front door I saw a woman holding a papillon that had attracted the loving attention of a 6'2" bruiser with a deep voice. OK, so the bruiser was me; what are you going to do about it? Put a pink dog bow in my hair?

The Dutch Baroque painter Paulus Potter is most famous for his depictions of cows, yet he did sometimes turn his eye to dogs. His Dogs in an Interior of 1649 shows a lot of frolicking and doggy business inside a burgher's snug canal house. One-half dozen toy breeds are seen running about with some representatives perched on a comfy chair outfitted with a velour cushion. Here there is a silken bow, there a leather collar accessorized with pearls. In the lower right corner of the canvass somebody is poised for an accident while somebody else... immaculately groomed though he may be... points his nose in for a whiff. The fine brushstrokes give the subjects an almost tangible physical presence.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686 - 1755) had clients including the Queen of Sweden and Czar Peter the Great of Russia. He also had some truly major gigs; Louis XIV, King of France frequently summoned him to Versailles to paint the royal hounds in his presence. Oudry's Dog with Bowl, 1751, normally displayed at the Louvre, is a trompe l'oeil of a dog royally ensconced in a majestic hearth. He sports a hand-stitched thick leather collar and his water bowl is exquisite Chinese porcelain. The darkened background of the hearth contrasting with the dog's mainly white coat evidences Oudry's taste for chiaroscuro (dramatic contrast between light and dark).

Marie-Antoinette loved the works of Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744 - 1818), so made her the official court painter and professor of design. Vallayer-Coster is famous for her still lifes and her meticulous attention to rendering realistic detail. In this show she is represented by Les Petits Favoris, (The Little Favorites). Three pampered puppies pose on a tasseled velour cushion, silken bows around their necks. Their expressions range from "I deserve all this" to "Give me another biscuit."

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo painted some of the most glorious frescoes in Europe but there will always be a special place in our hearts for his 1763 oil on canvass Portrait of the Spaniel of the Infanta Maria Josefa de Bourbón. The Infanta's Spaniel sits with aristocratic pride atop a plush green satin cushion with gilded ticking and tassels. His chest is snowy white and fluffed, his forelegs solid though slender and his mask beautifully proportioned. A gold-colored drapery behind him nicely complements the golden highlights in his brown ears.

If it's Rococo, it could be Jean-Baptiste Marie Huet (1745 - 1811). Huet made a splash at the Paris Salon of 1769 with his Fox in the Chickenyard. A dyed in the wool animal lover, he also painted Sheep Among Leafy Foliage. What with his depictions of ram's heads, lions, cattle and assorted beasts, you could actually get impatient waiting for him to paint a doggie. Yet to view his 1778 Portrait of a King Charles Spaniel is to know the wait was worthwhile. During my gallery visit, a little girl seeing this painting squealed with glee "A Pomeranian!" while her father scratched his head and said "I don't know about that." The King Charles Spaniel is shown seated on a most sumptuous red velvet cushion with a lustrous blue satin backdrop. He evidences all the fine points of his breed. A Blenheim, his fur is rich chestnut on pearly white. His dog coat shows a slight wave and his ears, chest, legs, feet and tail the characteristic feathering. His smile and the glint in his eyes communicate an unmistakable message; "Spoil me more!"

The British artist Philip Reinagle (1749 - 1833) has to his credit portraits of a Dalmatian as well as of Fly, Major Topham's Famous Greyhound. His work in this show is the hilarious Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog. The viewer beholds a spaniel seated at a keyboard instrument with sheet music for a florid version of God Save the King. His paws are engaged with the keyboard; his long floppy silken-furred ears keen to the finest dynamic nuances of the music he is making. He turns a plaintiff, soulful-eyed gaze outwards, communicating his emotional engagement. The painting is well-enough realized so as not to be sheerest kitsch.

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802 - 1873) is one of the most distinguished animal portraitists of all time. His statues of lions grace Trafalgar Square in London. He was patronized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as well as Charles Dickens. It is said he could paint with both hands at once, filling in a dog's head with one hand while completing the tail with the other. In his Portrait of a Terrier, Property of Owen Williams, Esq., M.P. (Jocko with a Hedgehog), we see that Jocko isn't sure what to make of the hedgehog, nor does the hedgehog know what to make of him. The terrier's pampered status, however, is clear from his immaculate coat and his opulent silvered collar.

In Attachment, (1829) Landseer depicted a terrier who kept watch over his master Charles Gough after Gough fell while climbing Helvellyn Mountain in Scotland. Gough was known to be missing; only three months later did a local hear a dog barking and find her keeping a vigil over her human companion. The event is further immortalized in Sir Walter Scott's Helvellyn and William Wordsworth's Fidelity. The moral of the story is that a pampered puppy pays for the pampering in kind. Also part of this show is Landseer's Deerhound and Recumbent Hound, normally on display at the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog in St. Louis (, an institution of interest.

Pugs have long been associated with pampering. In 1688, exemplars of the breed accompanied William the Silent of Holland and his wife Mary when they crossed the English Channel to assume the throne. Queen Vicky had fawn and black pugs in her kennels at Windsor; by the 19th century pugs had grown more than a little accustomed to being spoiled just absolutely rotten. In 1875, John Sargent Noble produced Pug and Terrier, an oil on canvass. The painting makes a doggy social statement; the pug stands territorially on a stately door front, a chic leather collar about his neck, while the terrier is begging on a lower step with a collections cup and a cheapo string leash.

Brit painter William Frank Calderon came from a Spanish lineage with roots in Villafranca de los Cabelleros, Toledo. His A Lady of Quality is the pièce de resistance of this exhibit. The lady in question is a Russian wolfhound, a borzoi, shown in dreamy repose atop a plush white fur throw decking a tapestry divan with gilded, polished wooden legs and arms. Queen Alexandra had received Russian wolfhounds as gifts from Czar Alexander III; the lady in this painting appears to be serenely aware of her breed's elevated status. Golden highlights in her coat harmonize with her amber eyes, from which comes a look of fashionable ennui, that is, boredom. She extends one forepaw along the divan as though preparing for a plié, which she nonetheless is too enervated to execute. The sumptuousness of her surroundings, so warmly rendered, provide a fitting frame for the depiction of her profoundly pampered soul.

A sculpture by the contemporary Italian Maurizio Cattelan, Dog Skeleton with Le Monde, serves to remind that puppies pamper us too. An actual dog's skeleton is shown, holding in its mouth, as though for a cherished human, a copy of the French daily Le Monde from December 19, 1997. As evidence of the cosmopolite urban life the dog skeleton lived, the newspaper he carries reports on a festival of African music held in the Théâtre Gérard-Phillipe de Saint-Denis in Paris.

For proof that Marilyn Monroe was not the only dazzling blonde on the planet, we need look no further than Andy Warhol's four-foot-tall portrait of the cocker spaniel Ginger from 1976. Ginger was a companion to the art collector Peter Brant. Her posture, her gaze and her attitude are noble. She very evidently has a lustrous coat groomed several times each week. She is blond, she is a star, a great star; posing, she knew how to really give to the painter, so he was inspired to create the most flattering possible portrait of her. Aren't you surprised to learn that a person can be manipulated by a dog?

Jackson Pollack had his greyhounds, Peter Max his Dobermans and of course, William Wegman his Weimaraners. The dachshund, however, seems to have pride of place in the lives of accomplished painters. Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Rubens, Picasso, Warhol, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were all partial to the breed. Georgia O'Keefe passed away at 98 with her beloved dachshunds at her side. For those few who didn't already know; Dach is German for roof, so these doggies have their name because their elongated form reminds of a covering on certain buildings. This show includes David Hockney's Dog Painting 22 of 1995. A canine parallel to his earlier We Two Boys Together Clinging, the work shows the artist's beloved Stanley and Boodgie, russet, handsome and snoozing atop comfy dog sofa cushions.

Space limitations keep me from discussing the many, many fine additional dog paintings on view. The Yale University Press published a fascinating book accompanying Best in Show with color reproductions and informative texts. You could use it to bone up on the art before attending this once-in-a-barking-lifetime exhibition. Regular readers know my humor is way past going to the dogs

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