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My Favorite Things: Public Dog Art

Most major metropolitan areas in the U.S. have public arts programs that allow residents and visitors access to art in public spaces. The memorials, monuments and murals that dot cityscapes are often included as part of walking tours that introduce pedestrians to works by local and international artisans. For art lovers who happen to be dog lovers too, an afternoon in the park can reveal a surprising number of carefully crafted canines in bronze, stone and steel.

On a recent afternoon in my hometown of Philadelphia, an unscheduled walk along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway reminded me of the city’s legacy in both the art world and the world of purebred dogs.

Philadelphia was the first American city to require developers to set aside a percentage of construction costs for the commission of original, site-specific art. The City of Brotherly Love was also the location of the first meeting of sportsman who would go on to organize the American Kennel Club. Not surprisingly, several of the public artworks installed throughout the city’s parks and streetscapes feature the dog in both supporting and starring roles.

“The Parkway” is home to many world-class museums including the Rodin Museum, the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1997, the Perelman Building opened as an annex to the city’s main museum, and it is at the entrance to this former insurance company headquarters that I encountered the first of several dogs immortalized for public viewing.

One of the two Great Danes that guard the entrance to the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Constructed in 1928 for the Fidelity Life Insurance Company, the building displays an astonishing number of relief sculptures on its art deco facade. On either side of the museum’s grand entry doors lie two Great Danes carved in the limestone walls. The pair figures prominently at the street level and is meant to symbolize fidelity, a virtue inherent in the canine and espoused by the insurance industry.

The Great Danes are the creation of architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie whose most prominent public work is the 15-foot figure of the god Atlas at New York City’s Rockefeller Center. Though less impressive in scale, the dogs nonetheless display the strength and power that gave the breed the nickname, “the Apollo of dogs.”

Majestic in appearance, Lawrie’s Danes are life-size and powerfully formed. The expressive heads display a pronounced masculinity with a prominent stop and cropped ear. Decorative collars adorn the well-arched necks, and the dogs’ powerful shoulders support strong, muscular forelegs and big paws. The slightly visible ribs indicate good conditioning for work, and the well-angulated hindquarters seem at once relaxed and ready. The tucked tails seems to indicate calmness, rather than timidity.

On my visit, the time of day allowed the sun to cast dramatic shadows over the relief, enhancing the dogs’ powerful angles. Only a living, breathing Dane could be more impressive.

“The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog” by Victoria Davila is a larger-than-life-size bronze sculpture of a Bullmastiff. Photo by Dan Sayers.

Another Working breed that sits proudly along the parkway is a larger-than-life-size Bullmastiff, sculpted by Victoria Davila. The large bronze titled, “The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog,” sits in a small triangular park across the street from the Perelman Building. Surrounded by a fragrant rose garden, the big dog offers quite a surprise for those unaware of its role as a permanent sentinel outside the museum.

The sculpture sits nearly four feet high and, like the breed it epitomizes, is impressive when viewed from any angle. Dedicated in 1989 by the Fairmount Park Commission, the Bullmastiff seems perfectly positioned to perform its duties day or night. Seated atop a concrete base with a limestone cap, the dog has an ideal vantage point for keeping an eye on museum visitors.

Powerfully made like the Bullmastiff it represents, Davila’s sculpture manifests a great power and strength. Like the Danes, this dog appears alert, but relaxed. It sits casually on one of its hips, forelegs perfectly straight and set well apart. The large head is fairly well-wrinkled, and the broad muzzle is deep, with moderate flews and strength of the lower jaw. The dog’s body is likewise grand, with a form that is both compact and powerfully sculpted.

It isn’t difficult to imagine this Bullmastiff alerting to the presence of potential poachers (or art thieves).

A pointing dog accompanies Benjamin Franklin and other Revolutionary War figures in this relief on the Washington Monument Fountain at the foot of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Dan Sayers.

A less conspicuous dog sculpture is found on one of the more impressive fountains installed in Philadelphia, which easily rivals those in any other city.

The Washington Monument Fountain sits at the foot of the steps made famous in the Academy Award-winning film, “Rocky.” Visitors enjoy climbing the fountain’s remarkably lifelike animal figures just as they enjoy running up the 72 steps made famous by actor Sylvester Stallone.

German sculptor Rudolf Siemering designed the fountain’s allegorical statuary. The enormous, multitiered monument commemorates the birth of a nation and celebrates the natural beauty of the fledgling United States. General George Washington faces the parkway seated atop his horse, Nelson, while intricately detailed figures of flora and fauna appear atop the granite below. The dozens of figures that adorn the fountain create an overall sense of wonder and awe.

Among the individual sculptures that appear throughout the fountain are authentic replicas of bison, elk, moose and bear. Small animals take the form of many birds, reptiles and fish. Even a conch shell appears alongside one of several Native American figures.

Thirteen steps, representing the original colonies, lead visitors to an enormous bronze plaque that adorns the monument’s south face. Benjamin Franklin stands centered among a dozen or more colonial era figures. Those represented by the relief include soldiers, farmers, statesmen, laborers and craftsmen who denounced tyranny and fought for independence.

Among the sculpture’s many colonists stands the fountain’s lone canine, a medium-sized animal that appears to be some kind of hunting dog, or maybe a hound. The dog walks alongside the figure of a man carrying a rifle. Its smooth-coated body is trim and fit, and its strong legs appear well-angulated and covered with muscle. The dog resembles a German Shorthaired Pointer or a similar Continental breed, and its keen eyes gaze up at the soldier in a display that characterizes the devotion and willingness to please that’s familiar to dog lovers everywhere.

If your town has artwork on public display that features images of the dog, please feel free to share the location with our readers in the comments section below, so we all can enjoy such sights wherever we visit.

Written by

Dan Sayers started “in dogs” through a chance encounter with a Springer Spaniel in 1980. A student of dogs ever since, he’s shown Spaniels and Hounds in the conformation ring and breeds Irish Water Spaniels under the Quiet Storm prefix. A dog lover with a passion for the creative arts, Dan has worked as a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator for many years. His feature articles and columns have appeared in Dogs in Review, Dog World and the AKC Gazette, and his design work has appeared in dozens of publications in North America and abroad. An interest in all things “dog” brought Dan to Best In Show Daily, where he gets to work with the most dynamic group of fanciers every day. He lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his partner, Rudy Raya, Irish Water Spaniel, Kurre, and the memory of Oscar, a once-in-a-lifetime Sussex Spaniel.