Man’s Best Friend: A Companion That Knows No Time Period
It is supposed that King Frederick of Prussia (1740-1786) was the first to use the term “man’s best friend” when describing dogs, and the phrase was then later popularized when Ogden Nash used it in one of his poems. Dogs were one of the first animals to be domesticated, and it is evident that this isn’t a trend that will be going away anytime soon. They have become a significant part of daily life for many people across the world and are deeply intertwined with our cultural and familial histories. This exhibit consists of portraits that span over the course of several centuries that show individuals with their dogs. Perhaps the viewer will be able to feel like a part of a rich tradition that has ensued for hundreds or thousands of years, or maybe something like the twinge of nostalgia for a childhood pet by looking into the face of a stranger. Although domesticated dogs have served different purposes throughout the history of the world, it is clear that we allow dogs to maintain their positions curled up at the foot of a couch, in a dog bed on the floor, or in the backseat of an SUV because they have long since been admired for their loyalty, friendliness, unconditional love, and companionship toward humans.
Anthony van Dyck, James Stuart (1612–1655), Duke of Richmond and Lennox, 1633–1635, Oil on canvas, 85 x 50 1/4 in., 89.15.16
James Stewart was a British nobleman who served as the 1st Duke of Richmond and the 4th Duke of Lennox in the early- to mid-17th century. He served in several different capacities for the Royalist party in the English Civil War before his death in 1655. There is no historical evidence that suggests Stewart ever had a dog, but the greyhound here by his side suggests nobility and perhaps the virtue of faithfulness. The artist likely would’ve wanted the viewer to see the dog as a mirror of the Duke, who served his country loyally and sacrificially.
Giacomo Ceruti, A Woman with a Dog, 1740s, Oil on canvas, 38 x 28 1/2 in., 30.15
Giacomo Ceruti was nicknamed "Pitocchetto" (which translates to “the little beggar”) because of his art that often depicted peasants clothed in dirty rags. Uncommon to his time, he gave his subjects a great amount of dignity and individuality, but he managed to do it without presenting them in an idealistic way. The woman here isn’t really doing anything, almost as if to say that she has nothing to do; she is likely displaced, homeless, and poor. Ceruti; however, makes her dignity tangible by giving her the dog. She has ownership of something and is responsible for its health and wellbeing.
William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug, 1745, Oil paint on canvas, 900 x 699 mm, The Tate Britain, N00112
William Hogarth spent about a decade working on this self-portrait with his pug, Trump. Hogarth depicts his dog as an obedient companion and a large part of his everyday life. Trump is given the honor of being placed side-by-side with Hogarth’s books and palette, both of which were major parts of his life. Hogarth was inspired just as much by his pet as he was by the literature on which his portrait is resting. He uses the literature of Shakespeare and Milton to elevate himself as a learned artist, but isn’t so pompous to elevate himself so high as to say that he doesn’t need a companion.
Jean Honoré Fragonard, A Woman with a Dog, 1769, Oil on canvas, 32 x 25 3/4 in., 37.118
The woman in this painting has been identified as Marie Émilie Coignet de Courson, a wealthy Parisian aristocrat who likely commissioned the painting. There are humorous contrasts in the relationship between the woman and her dog. She is shown in extravagance by her pearls that were too large to even be real, her giant collar, and her brightly colored clothing. The woman is caught in a leisurely scene, depicting what daily life in the elite social class of the 18th century may have looked like, and in Coignet de Courson’s case, it clearly involved a pet dog.
John Singer Sargent, Miss Beatrice Townsend, 1882, Oil on canvas, 31 1/4 x 23 in., National Gallery of Art, 2006.128.31
Some of Sargent’s earliest and most captivating works were his portraits of children. He didn’t just paint in order to show an idealized childhood; he allows his work to serve as case studies for his subjects. In this portrait, he paints Beatrice’s pet terrier by her side in an attempt to capture her unique personality. Two years after Sargent painted this portrait, Townsend unfortunately died of peritonitis at a mere 14 years old, but Sargent was able to freeze time and capture her peering into the viewers’ eyes head-on; it creates a sense of liveliness, emotion, and self-confidence in the young girl.
Frida Kahlo, Itzcuintli Dog with Me, 1938, Oil on canvas, 28 x 20 ½ in., Private collection, Dallas, Texas
After a bus accident, Frida was unable to bear children, so she turned to her pets for security, comfort, and affection, going as far to adopt animals such as birds, monkeys, and even a deer. In this self portrait, her face and posture may appear sensual, but viewers should not be fooled. Her black dress, the empty room, and the gloomy wall all converge to convey a sense of transcendent loneliness. It seems that she has lost any connection she once may have had with her dog, a rare and expensive breed that was highly prized by the Aztecs, who was once so important to her.
Joel Pelletier, Dreaming with Orson, 2013, Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 78 in., Private collection, Los Angeles, California
Pelletier first saw Henri Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy at the MOMA in 1985, but it wasn’t until many years later that he painted his own piece as an homage to the one done by one of his favorite artists. Pelletier’s Irish Wolfhound, Orson, suffered a stroke and found himself in the hospital, unable to walk. Pelletier figured it was a death sentence for his 130-pound companion, but he eventually regained his health and soonafter celebrated his 11th birthday. Because of his great bond with Orson, Pelletier knew he had to paint this piece, and a month later, the finished canvas was hanging on his wall.