Many people love their dogs (as I do), and have art related to a certain breed. One fine day, at an appraisal in Hollywood, I brought my dachshund Bear (he fits his name, small but powerful, and he knows his own mind), and my client allowed him into her fabulous high rise, and the relationship between my client, who loved dachshunds, and me, who had three generations of dachshunds, began.
I was thrilled to find, after I wrote her appraisal, that she sent me a little mid-century painting — a gouache on paper, of a dachshund on a chair, a mid-century ladder back. How the dachshund got upon the seat we will never know. It is a chair as tall as he is wide in the little painting.
So this article is about the history of breeds in related dog portraiture. And it is a rich area to discuss.
You will see the wonderful little gouache gifted to me is from the 1960s in the photo, but the story is older. Let us go back to the 15th century, when the household dog began to be painted with its owners: for example, the wonderful little Brussels Griffon, as seen in Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait”, 1434, which at present is in the National Gallery London. What an artist is doing with a dog in the mix of a man and his betrothed is to show fidelity, guardianship and domestic bliss. And this is the earliest representation of the Brussels Griffon.
Now we go to another famous inclusion of a dog, as a portrait unto itself – of a dog in a masterwork painting: Diego Velazquez, “Las Meninas,” 1656, presently at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, where Velazquez pictures a massive Spanish mastiff, a protector dog, bred to watch over sheep, family and children and serve as a guardian of the home. It’s perfect for the images of the future royal children of Spain and an early representation of a massive and important breed.
A 1673 painting by Jan Steen shows us one of the early images of the King Charles spaniel, in the work called the “Wrath of Ahasuerus” currently at the Barber Institute of the Arts, University of Birmingham in Britain. This is a wonderful portrayal of the spaniel, which had its origin in the Iberian Peninsula and was bred to retrieve game birds for the aristocracy. And here, the dog looks nervous and ready to play, as anyone who has a spaniel will recognize.
Finally, another great image of an early breed, also in an invaluable work of art, is a Poitevin hound in Gustav Courbet’s 1854 groundbreaking masterpiece, in which he shows that the artist is equal to the aristocrat, who here has ownership of the beautiful purebred Poitevin hound, and we see the breed as it is today. The work is called “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet,” 1854, painted by an artist who wanted to paint pure realism, and deal with the class issue through this method. The dog, as usual, becomes a symbol of what the artist is showing, meaning that breeding is only as good as what is bred.
Through the world of art, the dog has been represented and celebrated, but there is a definite reason for that. The dog is an early symbol of loyalty as well as a symbol of the shortness of life. If you know what I know, having been a long time owner of dogs, they live for almost a cycle in a human’s lifetime, which is 14-17 years. And then, they are gone. And then, you have the close of an era in your own life.
When you see a dog in a painting you may be sure that the artist wants to say something about both life and death, with a little bit about loyalty thrown in. My little dachshund painting is not on the level of the works I have mentioned. But a painting of a dog breed that we love will always make us happy. We remember how our own cycle of life is encapsulated in the many lives of our dogs.
I tried to find the artist of my gift, which is signed Ritter on that wonderful mid-century gift of a dachshund in a high backed chair, but that “Ritter” I have not found. The image itself is at this time probably valued in the market because it is a mid-century theme and style, and thus, is worth about $400.
I thank all those of us who love to see our dogs in our art.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.