Dogs have been so integral to our lives for so long that you can find artistic representations of them just about anywhere you go.
In addition to being a dog lover, I’m an art lover. Although I grew up in Southern California, which isn’t exactly the fine-art hub of America, it certainly has some venues that are worth repeat visits over the years.
When I was a child, one of my mother’s favorites was The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. It does, indeed, feature a library with an amazing collection of books, which, for a writer, hold a particular fascination. But it’s in the many galleries of art, and along the paths of the extensive gardens, where visitors tend to linger.
The art in one gallery has remained much the same in all the decades I’ve been visiting The Huntington. The Thornton Portrait Gallery, at 2,900 square feet, is at least the size of a ballroom you might see in a movie where the action takes place in a castle-like house. The paintings are all larger-than-life, full-body portraits. To get an idea of the scale, think of the portraits “The Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough and “Pinkie” by Thomas Lawrence. Both live in that gorgeously cavernous gallery, part of The Huntington Library’s permanent collection.
Although not a single painting in the gallery is devoted exclusively to a dog, or even a litter or pack of hounds, several canines are pictured at the feet of their loving masters and mistresses. Whenever I see this in an artwork, I interpret it as meaning that the particular dog was quite important to the person whose visage was being recorded, so to speak, over what likely were many sittings before the painting’s completion.
One of my favorite oil paintings at The Huntington Library is “Lavinia (Bingham), Countess Spencer, and John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp, later Earl Spencer” by Joshua Reynolds. Although the title doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the image is simply lovely. Notice how the dog lovingly looks up at his mistress and the young boy. This painting is almost 60 inches tall and about 43 inches wide, created in 1783 and 1784.
For me, nothing is more joyous than children and dogs playing together. Another painting from the same period by another British painter, George Romney, depicts this so sweetly. The pink-cheeked Clavering children stand with the sea at their backs, a breeze blowing the girl’s scarf as she nuzzles a tiny puppy. Meanwhile her brother, who will one day become Sir Thomas Clavering, holds a fine lead on two dogs. The devotion of the darker dog is clear as he rests his paws on the boy’s leg, seeking some affection. Painted in 1777, this work is more than 5 feet tall and about 4 feet wide. Because young Catherine would die as a teenager, it soothes me to know that she found such joy and love with her family’s dogs.
I include Thomas Gainsborough’s monster painting – more than 7 feet tall – of Karl Friedrich Abel because it’s a scene so many of us with dogs can appreciate. Who amongst us hasn’t sat paying the bills, filling out show entries, browsing the Internet or, in this case, composing music, with our faithful companion at our feet? The dog’s complete relaxation seems apparent though its tail is quite close to Abel’s heel. For you classical music aficionados, Abel was a German composer, who, in his 20s, studied with Johann Sebastian Bach. This painting of Abel was made just 10 years before his death in 1787.
After I’ve been through the Thornton gallery once, then sauntered the beautiful and eclectic gardens, browsed the library, wandered among the 18th-century limestone statues of classical mythology and folklore, and explored the other art galleries, I like to return to the Thornton one last time. I have to get one more glance of the stunning room itself, and each of the portraits within it. I simply must.
Moving from the Thornton gallery, I want to stop at a marble piece that is simply exquisite. This marble sculpture, “Spaniel and Kitten,” was made by Joseph Gott, just a bit later – in 1827. At 28 inches wide, and about 12 or so inches tall and deep, it’s much more significant in size than it appears in the photograph above. While few of us give credence to any natural animosity between cats and dogs, it might be easy to assume these two are having some kind of spat. But if you look closely at their faces, it’s clear that they’re just playing. The detail in their coats is amazing. I can’t imagine being able to create such fine detail in a piece of hard, cold marble. Someday I would love to stroke this piece and follow the tufts of coat, the grapes and the lovely muzzle of that dog. Alas, the guards take a vociferously dim view of that at most art galleries.
Fast forward to 1906, and we find our first painting by an American, and a woman at that. Mary Cassatt put pastel to paper to capture “Francoise Holding a Little Dog.” In this much smaller work, about 27 by 23 inches, the young girl looks none too happy to be sitting for this portrait. Not even the presence of her little friend on her lap seems to bring her any joy on this day. Notice that the dog is looking directly at Cassatt, while Francoise looks into the distance. While not a happy-looking piece, I love that dog’s cute little face. In person, I can stand and look at him for minutes at a time. The rich blue of her silk dress and the red of her hair bow add a touch of brightness for me as well.
This sleek bronze, simply entitled “Antelope and Hound,” is one of The Huntington Library’s most recent acquisitions. Buying this was kind of like owning a very expensive show dog. It took donations from an art council, an endowment, a foundation and two philanthropists.
And no wonder. The lines are flowing perfection as the dog troubles the antelope, in what The Huntington Library archives describe as “lively movement.” Although I’ve never hunted or even hiked in antelope country with a hound, it’s not hard for me to believe that this bronze is quite true to life. The curve of the dog’s tail is stunning, and the antelope’s front legs are works of art all by themselves. Again, this piece aches to be caressed, but if allowed, I suspect it would ruin the illusion of motion and energy. It is bronze, after all, often cold to the touch. In my imagination, these two adversaries are quite hot at the moment.
Italian Prince Paolo Troubetzkoy chose a very different kind of Hound for this bronze. I’d expect this to be life-sized, based on the above photo, but it’s actually only about 10 inches tall. And that is not, I repeat, not, at the withers. This friendly-looking guy reminds me of my old Great Dane-Bloodhound mix, Burt. His ears were never cropped, he had that great chest, and he often sat with one leg out at an angle. The surfaces of “Italian Hunting Dog” stand in stark contrast to the sleekness of “Antelope and Hound.” Yet I love them both.
We now move outside for the last dogs I’ll mention in this article. “Carved Stone Dog” was sculpted by American Anna Hyatt Huntington in 1910. His near twin stands guard with him on a wide walkway on the grounds of The Huntington Library. Fortunately, these two are touchable and quite tempting. While definitely guard dogs, they nonetheless seem to invite visitors to pet them. Each is almost 4 feet tall with no embellishment of any kind, other than the stone base on which each sits for all eternity.
These artworks featuring our favorite species are just a sampling from The Huntington Library collections. A search of its online E-museum for “dog” turns up almost 75 items. Online, it can be difficult to see why a few of them are classified thus – one in particular. “The Blue Boy” shows up in this search, yet there’s no dog in the painting with him. I know this because I’ve stood in front of it just taking in all the detail, color and beauty many times.
Notably missing is a shaggy English Water Spaniel. When Gainsborough originally painted “The Blue Boy,” the dog was in the lower right corner of the painting. It was revealed by X-ray in a 1995 conservation study, reports Lisa Blackburn, communications coordinator for The Huntington. “But the artist apparently changed his mind and painted it out,” she says.
Who knows if that dog might have been as famous as Jonathan Buttal, the young man now known everywhere in the art world as “The Blue Boy”?
That ends today’s peek at the dog art at The Huntington Library. But if you’re ever in Southern California and want to visit the dogs there, let me know. I’d love to give you a personal tour.