I’ve long dreamed of owning a home covered with dog art. Beauty mogul Bobbi Brown has a room with floor-to-ceiling dog portraits. For now, due to limited space in New York, there’s another option: The American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, located in midtown Manhattan (just steps from Grand Central Terminal) has more dog paintings in its permanent collection than anyone else in the world—except for the Queen of England. Ironically, it’s not a place where you can bring your dog (unless it’s a service animal). To appreciate art with your dogs, I recommend following the example of The Wing’s curator, Lolita Cros and her dog, Cash: Head to Chelsea for the galleries. But what you will get at the Museum of the Dog, if you dare step away from your best friend for an afternoon, is a meticulously, obsessively compiled historical archive of dog breeding and dog shows. And in fact, a lot of this work was done by women.
But, you don’t want to worry about nude models to become a master painter of dogs. And in the early 20th century, women rose through the ranks in the dog portraiture world. Queen Victoria had begun commissioning her favorite artists to paint her dogs, and this ignited a trend that trickled down to the aspirational middle classes. Until September 29th, 2019, the museum has an exhibition called “Women and Dogs in Art” featuring British American portraitist Maud Earl, British American etcher and illustrator Marguerite Kirmse, English painter Lilian Cheviot, Canadian painter Diana Thorne, and British painter Lucy Dawson.
AKC executive director Alan Fausel, an Antiques Roadshow regular since 1997, who curated the exhibit, gave A&A exclusive insight into the world of late 19th- and 20th-century dog art by women:
How did dog portraiture become a thing?
English art is, from the 17th century through 19th century, dominated by portraiture. Portraiture is memorializing people in the past. You don’t see it until the Roman times. You don’t see it in Greek art, which featured generic people. It is memorializing your ancestors, especially for the aristocracy. In the 18th century, they started painting their horses. It was simple to move to dogs, starting with Queen Victoria. They started codifying the breeds and writing the breed standards, so it was important, pre-photography, to place these things in time. Then you get dog shows and confirmation shows, which is about how they measure up to that standard of breeds.
Is it true that dogs became known as household pets around that time, too? From the hunt to your home?
William Frank Calderon, who taught some of these folks, has this painting that is so Victorian. It’s an Irish wolfhound and two Foxhound pups called the orphans in a domestic interior and a 17th century Belgium tapestry and a jeweled box. It’s called “Orphans.” It’s very interior. It’s transitioning from the hunt, the aggression, to the portrait.
Did portraiture contribute to the standardization of breeds?
No. But they could record it. It was more just a Victorian sense of putting things in boxes.
How did women become leaders in the dog art world?
Two things: Patronage and entrepreneurship. For example, Maud Earl did portraits and capitalized on them. One of things she did was make portfolios, where you take photographs of your paintings and turn them into prints. And this was for evening entertainment. You’d buy 25 of these oversized prints, and you’ll pull them up, and rather than television, you’d view these. These were one way of popularizing the work, and it was very entrepreneurial.
What was Maud Earl’s painting process?
She used a turn table in the studio, so you could turn the dog different ways while it was posed. She wasn’t a traditional portraitist. She didn’t paint standard, idealized breeds. She painted them as they were.
Who were some of her patrons?
Major people in the British dog world. This was more of an upper class pursuit. You had to have kennels and land. She painted Queen Victoria’s dogs, including Caesar, who was so important that he was included in the funeral procession.
Who else is in the exhibition?
While Maud Earl does paintings, Marguerite Kirmse was more of an etcher. We have an example of a copper plate on exhibit because a lot of people don’t completely understand how an etching is made. She raised Scotties, so you see Scotties a lot, but also they worked well with the etchings. Marguerite also illustrated the first edition of Lassie Come Home. She sculpted dogs, including her Scotties, too.
They were mass produced?
Yeah, she made a lot of money. I don’t have the exact figures, but she was prolific. She also did three series of plates: Sporting dogs, American sporting dogs, and terriers. These were the beginning of collector plates, produced by Wedgewood in the ’30s and ’40s. Her etchings would be transferred onto them. But these aren’t as popular with the millennials these days.
Photos courtesy of AKC Museum of the Dog