I had rather see the portrait of a dog that I know than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world.

—Samuel Johnson

Rare is the man with the honor of having a dog breed named after him. Of course there is Charles II of England, who gave his name to the King Charles spaniel, so strongly were the little particolored dogs associated with him and his court. Enamored of the eponymous creatures, Charles could sometimes put canine concerns above those of the state. Samuel Pepys noted at a 1666 council meeting: “All I observed there was the silliness of the King, playing with his dog all the while and not minding the business.” Charles was dog-mad but perpetually unlucky: a July 1660 announcement declared “[H]is Majesties own Dog . . . doubtless was stoln, for the dog was not born nor bred in England, and would never forsake His master. . . . Will they never leave robbing his Majesty! Must he not keep a Dog?” Self-pity ran high among the Stuarts.

Then there is the Dandie Dinmont terrier—named after a dog-owning farmer in Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering—a breed seen rarely these days, looking like a cross between a long-haired dachshund and a border terrier, with a jaunty tuft of fur atop its proud head. The Lucas terrier, another low-to-the-ground, rough-coated specimen, takes its name from Sir Jocelyn Lucas, 4th Baronet, the twentieth-century Tory politician who refined his Sealyham terriers so far as to establish them as a different breed, one that would be, in his memorable words, “death to rats.”

But surely Edwin Henry Landseer (1802–73) is the only artist ever to have lent his name to a breed, and deservedly so, for no one did more to popularize and legitimate the dog picture than this Victorian master. Landseer’s namesake breed, a black-and-white Newfoundland, appeared many times throughout his oeuvre, but never more famously than in his 1831 Distinguished Member of the Humane Society (the distinguished member, in this case, being a dog). Susie Green, in her new book, Dogs in Art, tells the story of the celebrated Bob with appropriate humor:

Legend has it that Bob was shipwrecked off the English coast . . . and made his way to London, no doubt to seek his fortune. And indeed Bob found it, for over a period spanning fourteen years he saved 23 people from drowning alone on the London waterfront. He was made a distinguished member of the Royal Humane Society . . . which meant he was fed every day and, probably less interesting from Bob’s point of view, awarded a medal.1

Green’s book is a useful primer on the history of dog depictions, spanning time, media, and world cultures. We learn of how dogs appeared on Greek vases, accompanying musicians and hiding under the sofas at symposia; in Roman cave canem mosaics; as hunters in medieval illuminated manuscripts and tapestries; as incidental players in Northern Renaissance genre scenes; as loyal sentries in frescoes by Italian artists such as Mantegna; and finally as subjects in their own right, starting with Jacopo Bassano’s Two Hunting Dogs Tied to a Stump (1548).

One of many “cave canem” mosaics in Pompeii. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen.

The book’s text is garlanded by myriad image reproductions, often accompanied by informative captions that go beyond the usual rote artist/year/medium information and include further commentaries on the works. Strangely, these captions do not include the works’ locations. And the book, charming as it is, could have benefitted from a closer editorial eye. The city of Alexandria is given as Alexandra; Zurbarán as Zurbarian; kunstkammers as contskammers. But its virtues outweigh these deficiencies—it is the most recent work on dog art and has a broader remit than most books on the subject, which leave more contemporary developments to the side. The casual, anecdotal style records the stories that others neglect: how Lucian Freud, who included his beloved bull terrier in a 1950–51 portrait of his then-wife Kitty, once “redirected a pack of foxhounds into Bryanston school hall”; and how the 2017 David Hockney retrospective at Tate Modern included only one painting of his dachshunds, despite the artist having painted over forty of them.

William Secord’s Dog Painting, 1840–1940: A Social History of the Dog in Art (1992, reissued in 2002 as Dog Painting: A History of the Dog in Art) is not exactly an academic study, for it has too much feeling, and, blessedly, no cant. But it is considerably more systematic than Green’s work. Breed by breed, it examines the golden age of dog painting from 1840 on, “when pure-bred dogs became popular,” reproducing fine depictions of each type. Secord details how most paintings of dogs in Georgian England were sporting scenes, meant to show the prowess of a given breed in the field: sighthounds, especially greyhounds, predominated, and the dogs were often shown either in the act of coursing (hunting game by sight) or having successfully completed their task. An 1803 engraving by Philip Reinagle, a Royal Academician with a special talent for dogs and horses, shows a prideful greyhound, Major, who won the Thousand Guinea Challenge Cup for Coursing on the Epsom Downs, with his quarry at his feet, the slain hare’s lifeless expression a foil to the hound’s confident and strong bearing.

These Georgian sporting scenes gave way to Victorian pet portraits, meant to commemorate beloved companions. While in the seventeenth century spaniels were royal accoutrements—as in Anthony van Dyck’s Five Eldest Children of Charles I (1637), where Prince Charles rests his hand on a mastiff but a small, pleading spaniel steals the scene at bottom—by the nineteenth century they had become subjects in their own right, whether resting on lavish beds or reposing in a landscape. Gourlay Steell’s 1858 Jeannie shows the pampered pup par excellence, a black and tan King Charles spaniel posed on an ermine stole, indicative of her reputed owner, Queen Victoria. Steell cleverly includes a glove resting beneath the pet, indicating her tiny size.

The canine-crazed Victoria did more than anyone to raise the status of dog painting among professional artists. Whereas previous monarchs tended to patronize history painters, Victoria supported animal artists, an extension of her love for creatures generally. “No civilisation is complete when it does not include the dumb and defenceless of God’s creatures within the sphere of charity and mercy,” she said in an 1887 speech glorifying the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals. Victoria’s patronage found its most fruitful expression in the prolific Landseer. He gained favor with her through an 1836 portrait of her adored tricolor King Charles spaniel, Dash, commissioned by the then-princess’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. The small, circular portrait gave way to a larger commission, four feet by six, of Her Majesty’s Favourite Pets (1837–38), showing Dash resplendent on a velvet cushion, guarded by a greyhound and a deerhound (Nero and Hector, respectively), and ignoring completely the parrot, Lory.

Further commissions solidified Landseer’s place as a royal favorite, among them an 1841 portrait of Prince Albert’s best-loved greyhound, Eos, and an ambitious tableau called Windsor Castle in Modern Times (1840–43), the latter of which showed Landseer’s talent to full effect. At right a seated Prince Albert, just returned from a shoot, is greeted by a doting Queen Victoria bearing flowers. Eos the greyhound sits between his legs while the terriers Skye, Cairnach, and Dandy Dinmont cause trouble. An array of dead game is laid out on the floor and an ottoman, everything from a mallard to a woodcock to a ptarmigan, while Princess Victoria, the couple’s eldest daughter, plays with a dead kingfisher. The painting displays the range of Landseer’s talent, which went far beyond dogs, and Queen Victoria was duly pleased with the result, writing upon its completion, “Game Picture (begun in 1840!), with us 2, Vicky & the dear dogs is at last hung up in our sitting-room here, & is very beautiful picture, & altogether very cheerful & pleasing.” The happy relationship between Queen and artist continued. At the time of Landseer’s death, at which he was honored with a state funeral (he was Sir Edwin by then), the Queen owned thirty-nine of his oils, sixteen chalk drawings, two frescoes, and many sketches besides.

Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, Dignity and Impudence, 1839, Oil on canvas, Tate Britain.

But if he had been simply a royal treasure, Landseer’s reach would have been limited. Indeed, Landseer’s gift was not just to please the court, but also to please the public, consistently exceeding his predecessors by packing emotional content into dog paintings, many of which were reproduced as engravings by his brother Thomas. His dogs are no hollow specimens, no hieratic confirmations of breed characteristics. Instead they are sentient creatures imbued with the feelings that we, as viewers, know they have. With his mastery of form as a given, what set Landseer most apart from the raft of other dog painters was his ability to convey poignancy or humor through nothing more than canine expression. Doubtful Crumbs (1859), now in the Wallace Collection, shows a burly mastiff guarding a picked-over bone, with a small terrier gazing wistfully at his unlikely meal. A similar juxtaposition animates Dignity and Impudence (1839), at Tate Britain, which poses a stately bloodhound next to a tetchy westie, simultaneously parodying Dutch portraits, in which a human would lean out a window, and providing a gentle depiction of beloved pets. Landseer understood the impishness of the canine soul and managed to color his subjects with their dogly good nature.

Alas, lesser talents who attempted the Landseer formula often failed. While Alfred de Dreux’s Pug Dog in an Armchair (1857)—with a corpulent pooch on a bergère holding its belly, a snack and half-drunk glass of wine on a nearby table, and a crumpled copy of Le Figaro in the foreground—is amusing enough, it’s a short hop from that to dogs playing poker. These novelty pictures, in their suggestion that dog painting is inherently unserious, belie a long and storied history of the genre.

Dog pictures are widely seen now as benign trifles. Still, they have not been immune from our era’s new puritanism. Landseer’s The Otter Speared, the Earl of Aberdeen’s Otterhounds (1844) has been deemed too graphic to display at Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery, which owns the painting. Susie Green correctly calls this “a curious decision considering how much graphic violence proliferates in the media.”

Those looking to acquire a dog painting of their own might start at William Secord’s eponymous New York gallery, whose website conveniently sorts inventory by breed. English friends can visit Abbott & Holder, the London gallery near the British Museum devoted to bringing quality art to the public at affordable rates. As part of their autumn 2019 exhibition of “Heads,” the gallery included a triple portrait entitled Lurchers Plotting (ca. 1870), a roughly painted canvas showing three poacher’s dogs in a conspiratorial pose. It formerly belonged to Alvilde Lees-Milne, the wife of James Lees-Milne, famous for his work saving English country houses as part of the National Trust. Now that’s pedigree.

1 Dogs in Art, by Susie Green; Reaktion, 288 pages, $35.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4, on page 27
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