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Dogs in Art: A Famous First Dog at the AKC Museum

For Best In Show Daily’s ongoing series highlighting artwork on display at the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, today’s featured painting is an oil on board by contemporary American pet portraitist Christine Merrill entitled “Millie on the South Lawn,” dated 1990 and donated to the museum by the William Secord Gallery.

“Millie on the South Lawn,” by Christine Merrill. Photo courtesy of the AKC Museum of the Dog.

Merrill is a native of Baltimore, and studied at the city’s Schuler School of Fine Art. Since 1975 she has specialized in painting dogs, and according to Bill Secord’s book, “A Breed Apart,” which details the art collections of the American Kennel Club and the museum, she “has an uncanny ability to capture not only the way the dog actually looks, but to instill the portrait with the individual character of each dog.”

Merrill has had commissions from clients all over the United States and in Europe and Japan, with numerous celebrity clients, including the late philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor, best-selling British novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford, the late fashion designer Geoffrey Beene and television journalist Bob Shieffer, who recently moderated the final presidential debate. Her paintings of Oprah Winfrey’s Cockers, Sophie and Solomon, hang in that famous lady’s Chicago apartment. Merrill has also illustrated three children’s books for the Newberry award-winning author Jean George. There’s even been an article about her in People magazine.

Perhaps it is George and Barbara Bush’s liver and white Spaniel, however, who is the most famous of all of Merrill’s commissions. As reported by the New York Times, Millie was mentioned in a speech made by her master during his 1992 reelection campaign when he said, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos,” referring to his opponents, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Bush has now famously become close friends with Clinton, but that was the day Millie was established as a household name.

The former first dog was also the “author” of a best-selling book, “Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush,” which described her life in the White House and included photographs of her with famous people. It sold more than 300,000 copies, raising nearly $900,000 for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

In 1989, while living in the White House, Millie had a litter of six puppies. One of them, Ranger, stayed with the senior Bushes, while the other five puppies reportedly went to good homes. Ranger and Millie retired to Houston with the Bushes after 41’s term as president ended. Millie died in 1997 at the age of 12.

Even U.S. presidents can be responsible breeders. In 1989 George and Barbara Bush’s English Springer Spaniel Millie had six puppies while living in the White House. Here the first couple and first dog take the little family out on the lawn for some fresh air. Photo by Diana Walker for Time & Life/Getty Images.

One of Millie’s daughters, Spot, became the only second-generation first dog when her owner, George W. Bush, was elected commander in chief. Spot holds another record, as the only dog ever to live in the White House twice, since she was born there. Spotty, as she was affectionately known by the family, and her companion, Barney the Scottie, lived with George and Laura Bush in Washington and traveled with them to Texas and Camp David.

Spot passed away in February 2004 at age 15, following a series of strokes, according to the New York Times. The 43rd president remains a keen admirer of dogs. New York Magazine reports that Bush, who paints in his spare time, includes dog portraits and Texas landscapes in his repertoire.

Christine Merrill painted Millie when the Springer was a White House resident. Merrill paints from photographs and/or videotapes, and when possible she likes to have at least one in-person visit with each subject, so she can observe the dog in its natural environment, playing, interacting with its humans or even sleeping. Her work, which is exclusively represented by the Secord Gallery, is so popular that she usually has a six- to nine-month waiting list.

Christine Merrill in her studio. Photo courtesy of the William Secord Gallery.

The AKC Museum of the Dog houses artwork from the origin of dog painting in the 17th century through today, and also includes artifacts depicting dogs from as early as 200 A.D. In “A Breed Apart,” Secord wrote, “the combined collections of AKC and the museum virtually tell the history of the dog in art.” From the earliest Belgian, Dutch and Flemish paintings through contemporary art like that of Christine Merrill, the museum’s collection features a wealth of artwork that will take visitors on a journey through the ages with our favorite companion, the dog.

The AKC Museum of the Dog is located at 1721 S. Mason Road in Queeny Park, West St. Louis County, Mo. The 14,000-square-foot museum displays more than 700 original paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, bronzes, porcelains and other objets d’art depicting dogs throughout the past several centuries. The museum grounds also house the Hope A. Levy Memorial Library, with more than 3,000 dog-related books and publications, and a gift shop.

If you enjoyed learning about “Millie on the South Lawn,” you may want to read about the works of Matilda Lotz and Arthur Wardle, also part of the museum’s collection.

Written by

Christi McDonald is a second-generation dog person, raised with a kennel full of Cairn Terriers. After more than a decade as a professional handler’s apprentice and handling professionally on her own, primarily Poodles and Cairns, she landed a fortuitous position in advertising sales with the monthly all-breed magazine ShowSight. This led to an 11-year run at Dogs in Review, where she wore several hats, including advertising sales rep, ad sales manager and, finally, editor for five years. Christi is proud to be part of the editorial team for the cutting-edge Best In Show Daily. She lives in Apex, N.C., with two homebred black Toy Poodles, the last of her Foxfire line, and a Norwich Terrier.