Where’s Rin Tin Tin when we need him? The box-office prowess of this German-shepherd-turned-movie-star saved Hollywood during the Depression. I thought of him when I visited the Museum of the Dog last week. It’s the new museum at the American Kennel Club’s headquarters on the corner of Park Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan.
Hollywood could use more actors like Rin Tin Tin. I can’t see him or Lassie or Toto threatening to bolt the country if you-know-who is reelected. Dogs excel in fidelity, even the dumb ones, and, by the way, I do love golden retrievers. Dogs are trainable, usually, and possess dog sense, as fine a substitute as any when there’s a shortage of common sense. Who would you rather hear — an eloquent, succinct, sensible gem from Little Orphan Annie’s Sandy (“arf”) or George Clooney droning about politics?
It’s the dog days of summer, so why not talk about New York’s newest museum? There’s lots of cute and kitsch on hand, but it’s a serious place. Women and Dogs in Art in the Twentieth Century is the current show there. Dog breeding and dog shows are among the few sports in which men and women — as owners, trainers, and handlers — can compete as equals.
Anyone who has seen the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show — next to the Kentucky Derby, America’s oldest sports event — knows that the dog-breeding world is an intense one. Anyone who has seen the 2000 film Best in Show knows it’s idiosyncratic. Dog breeding is fascinating, with meticulous standards and aristocracies for every breed. Americans might not have a nobility but our dogs do, though the populist in all of us loves a happy, scrappy mutt.
The niche world of dog painters, until recently, was dominated by women. Starting in the 1860s, French art schools like the Académie Julian in Paris catered to women, and places like the Royal Academy in London and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts offered women’s classes. Professional success, though, was nearly inaccessible, undermined by prejudice and stereotypes. Dog painting was an exception. The field was not so much marginal as intimate and private. American and British middle-class culture embraced dogs as something more than, well, dogs. They were part of the formula for making domestic bliss, and domestic bliss was a woman’s jurisdiction. Female artists could find patrons when they painted portraits of babies but also of dogs.
Maud Earl (1864–1943) was the only artist I knew in the show. She was the premier dog painter of the Victorian era and the show’s anchor artist. Silent Sorrow is her tribute to King Edward VII’s wire fox terrier, Caesar, as he mourned the king’s death in 1910. Caesar famously marched at the head of the king’s funeral procession, irritating the king’s nephew Kaiser Wilhelm II, who felt that the dog upstaged both him and the corpse. Caesar’s “autobiography,” called “Where’s Master,” was a bestseller. It infuriated Queen Alexandra, his widow, who correctly saw it as opportunistic, maudlin trash. She must have been irked, too, when Alice Keppel, the late king’s mistress, inquired among courtiers after the funeral whether Caesar was still well treated.
Earlier, Queen Victoria’s passion for dogs had inspired the British rural-based dog-breeding avocation men and women could share. Rich aristocrats could breed horses and hunting dogs, but for the squires and their circle, dog breeding was a better fit in every respect. A craze for dog painting followed, as did pedigreed-dog shows. Whitehall at Westminster, Rosalind Trigg’s 2005 painting of an Irish wolfhound and his handler, is a spritely, surprisingly evocative look at the Westminster show, first held in 1877, years before Crufts, its English counterpart.
Women and Dogs isn’t a high-octane show, but it’s the museum’s first go. It fits with the current museum world’s imperative to feature female artists. The museum worked mostly with what it already owned, which is fine. The section on Constance Bannister is instructive. In the early Baby Boomer years, her work visualized an accelerating trend among all classes in America: treating our pets as our children. We cherish them, dote on them, mourn them when they die, always too soon, and, it’s been noted, come to look like them.
Bannister was a good commercial artist, producing portraits of children and their pets, advertising photography, and illustrations for the American Kennel Club magazine. She was the canine world’s Norman Rockwell. Her work is charming. It expresses middle-class aspirations for comfort and security. It’s about caregiving, vulnerability, and loyalty. It’s never cloying.
At its best, the place is a teaching museum. The AKC advances knowledge about breeds, competitions, and dog health and welfare. Well-placed, easy-to-use interactive kiosks link the art on the wall to the mission of the place. I liked best the kiosk on working dogs used by the police and in the military. There’s a well-stocked, comfortable library that opens to the art galleries, underscoring the connection between art and serious learning.
I’ve been to so many college museums in the last few months, with preachy, vapid PC exhibitions. Not even a Lab would chase those balls of boredom. It’s refreshing to visit a museum that’s a niche place, no doubt, and could easily slide into the realm of the silly but keeps the conversation smart and enlightening. They’ve channeled their inner Snoopy and used their imagination to make the new museum an engaging destination.
I have many standards for evaluating art, among them the most visceral: “I think about that picture like a dog thinks about food.” That, for me, is praise for a work of art that’s as close to puppy love as this grizzled, jaded old WASP will ever feel. I didn’t see any art that memorable. Now, there’s dog art like Cassius Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker from the 1890s, which is technically proficient, but I wouldn’t call it good. It’s far beyond the scope of possibility. It’s not at the museum, but a variation — The President, by Horatio Couldrey from 1868 — is there. I can’t call this a bad painting. How many Gilded Age plutocrats looked like this? A lot, I imagine. A portrait of Millie, George and Barbara Bush’s White House dog, is on view. Millie’s “autobiography,” penned by Mrs. Bush, outsold her husband’s own life story.
William Wegman’s work is there. Wegman’s probably the best-known artist in America. Even people who don’t know his name recognize his work. He’s famous for his photographs of Weimaramers, which are very clever, but he’s also a pioneering video artist and a fine painter. The open stairwell is nicely installed with dog-themed ceramics, showing the many ways artists can morph the bulldog into Winston Churchill.
The Museum of the Dog has a good exhibition schedule in the next year, with shows on Hollywood dogs, presidential dogs, dogs in wartime, and dogs and Arctic exploration. Harry Truman didn’t really say “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” but it’s a truth that’s universally accepted. These days, though, there’s so much sleaze in D.C. that a discerning dog would need to hold his snout. Nixon’s Checkers never made it to the White House, but FDR’s Fala did. Both are famous and infamous. It’s a good chance to show political cartoons and news photography, both genres that need to get more recognition.
These shows have lots of possibilities, but I’d like to see a scholarly touch and shows that are more linear and narrative. Women and Dogs in Art doesn’t tell a story. It profiles individual artists. Over time, I’d mine the local museums like the Met, the Museum of Natural History, and MoMA for loans that would otherwise languish unseen in their storage vaults. I hope it ventures beyond the narrow field of professional dog painters. Homer, Copley, and Renoir painted dogs with zest for life and with coats so rich, you can feel them. Landseer and Stubbs were, more or less, animal painters. Their dogs are sublime. The subject is a big one, and the art goes far beyond the scope of the collection.
Little Orphan Annie and Sandy landed in a Fifth Avenue penthouse. Now, Scooby Doo, 101 Dalmatians, Pluto, Fang, Buck, Argos, and Clifford the Big Red Dog can add some “bark” to Park Avenue. Ouch! That’s lame. I can hear the Hound of the Baskervilles in full howl . . .