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Artist’s Best Friend

An English Bulldog we named Wilberforce joined my family this spring as a 10 week old bully. He’s a common sight outside the Indianapolis Museum of Art on mild, sunny days, attacking carefully planted bushes and decapitating bright flowers (Apologies to Irvin, Mark, Chad, etc.). Among the hundreds of photos taken, the one that struck me most by its artistic value is below. This impressionistic view of dog-in-art inspired me to dig a little into the history of dogs in art.

Wilber the Bulldog

Wilber the English Bulldog

Most of us are familiar with one scene or another from our friend’s basement game room of dogs playing poker. The prints are likely knock-offs of a series of sixteen oil paintings by C. M. Coolidge commissioned in 1903 by Brown & Bigelow to advertise cigars. According to Wikipedia, the paintings “have become derisively well-known in the United States as examples of mainly working-class taste in home decoration.” In 2005, two of the original Coolidge paintings fetched more than half a million dollars at auction.

"A Friend in Need" by C. M. Coolidge. Photo: The New York Times

"A Friend in Need" by C. M. Coolidge. Photo: The New York Times

Clearly, in the 1900s artists of all types were drawing upon man’s best friend as subjects to convey pop culture, humor and politics of the day. (Note: it’s the bulldog smartly passing the card under the table with his toes above.) But when did this canine imagery begin?

I was surprised to find an entire exhibition on the subject by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston called Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today. The museum features online slideshows and a great podcast interview with their Curator of European Art Dr. Peters Bowron.

Down through the centuries, other than the horse, perhaps dogs are the animal that has most widely been represented in every culture and practically every medium. And that’s the goal of this exhibition, to present the variety and above all the quality of images and affection and admiration with which the dog has been received by human beings. — Dr. Peters Bowron

What a fascinating way to look at social concerns in Western culture through the years. The MFAH exhibition depicts “the nobility and drama of the hounds of the hunt in Renaissance and Baroque art; the cozy domesticity of Dutch mutts and the pampered luxury of French Rococo and Impressionist lapdogs; the studied modernity of animals of the Machine Age and the febrile angst of Expressionism’s curs; the wit and irony of canine imagery in the eras of Pop, Postmodernism, and their aftermath…” George Stubbs, Andy Warhol and David Hockney all painted pups!

Jeff Koons' twisty-balloon dog at Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: GettySo what does our canine imagery say about us today? By looking at Jeff Koons’ twisty-balloon dogs or William Wegman’s photography of sometimes costumed Weimaraners, future generations might say we lean toward extravagance and eroticism. A few months ago, Michael Schaffer was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air about his new book One Nation Under Dog, documenting how the $43 billion industry “reflects our evolving ideas of consumerism, family, politics and domesticity.” Obviously, dogs are still man’s best friend. And now you know mine — his name is Wilber, and he would like to lick you.

Wilber as "Man's Best Friend"

Wilber as "Man's Best Friend"

(Wilber is currently contemplating a career in guerrilla marketing, life as the official mascot, or acting as an understudy to Butler University’s Blue II.)

Filed under: Art, Musings

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