The last couple of years have seen a number of exhibitions across the world focusing on animal art and retrospectives reappraising animal artists. George Stubbs: ‘all done from Nature’ at the MK Gallery (2019-2020), Miss Clara and the Celebrity Beast in Art, 1500 – 1860 at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts (2021-2022), Les animaux du roi at Versailles (2021-2022), Rosa Bonheur at the Musée des Beaux-arts de Bordeaux/ Musée d’Orsay 2022-2023) and Xolos, compañeros de viaje at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca (2022-2023) have all explored the role of animals in art. The British Library’s Animals: Art, Science and Sound exhibition will be open to the public until the end of the summer. Indeed, Portraits of Dogs treads similar territory to Chatsworth House’s 2019 exhibition The Dog: A Celebration.
That’s not to say by any means that this exhibition — which has been years in the making and was put on hold by the pandemic — doesn’t have anything new to say about paintings of humanity’s closest friends. Animal art, after all, has long been understudied and underappreciated, although it has gradually become a more popular subject of academic study over the last few decades. What differentiates the Wallace Collection’s exhibition from most of its predecessors is its rigid interest in portraits of dogs and dogs alone. Even though humans are deliberately absent from this exhibition, dog portraits commissioned or created by the people who loved them offer us an intimate insight into the psyches and domestic lives of their human owners (including those by Victoria).
Although the portraits on display range from the first century AD to the 1990s (by way of a Leonardo da Vinci study of a dog’s paw), the exhibition is primarily one of Victorian dog art, and the work of nineteenth-century animal artist Edwin Landseer forms the backbone of the exhibition. Landseer is divisive, his paintings (and the countless prints and paraphernalia they spawned) are widely perceived as relics of ‘cheap’ Victorian sentimentality. Whatever one’s own prior opinions about the artistic or moral quality of Landseer’s art, the exhibition does not so convincingly succeed in situating the artist and his work in context as the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition of Rosa Bonheur (Landseer’s French contemporary) did last year. In any case, for many visitors the exhibition will sink or swim on whether they find Landseer’s paintings mawkish or (depending on the subject) comical/heart-rending — or simply an interesting socio-historical artefact from an age when our ‘modern’ attitude towards animals was developing. The overall narrative of the exhibition is a little disjointed at points and the final room – which features David Hockney’s delightful portraits of his dachshunds, Stanley and Boodge (1995)— seems a little unmoored from the rest of the exhibition.
At its best, Portraits of Dogs prompts viewers to think critically about our responses to these portraits, and to ask ourselves why humans have been drawn to capturing the likenesses of dogs and what the dogs are actually doing in these works of art. In this way, it makes a case for not just perceiving the dogs as ciphers for other ideas (or indeed, for their owners). But there’s some tension here — some of the ‘portraits’, of course, do just that. The exhibition deliberately features portraits of dogs rather than portraits of dogs with their people. (In doing so, it necessarily excludes portraits where the dog is for all intents and purposes a co-sitter with the human subject.) Yet some of the Landseer paintings on display in ‘The Allegorical Dog’ room are not portraits in a strict sense of the word — many of the dogs in them (for instance, in 1836’s Comical Dogs, 1857’s Uncle Tom and A Jack in Office, painted at some point during the mid-nineteenth century) stand in for general types, people or even abstract ideas rather than individual animals.
Elsewhere, a more inclusive attitude to portraiture is certainly welcome — for instance, it rightly presents taxidermy as its own form of portraiture. It also features other multimedia portraits — those in miniature or in ceramics, including the porcelain copy of Roubiliac’s lost terracotta sculpture of Hogarth’s pug and some charming 1900s Fabergé miniatures of the Royal Family’s favourite dogs. The curators’ decision to deliberately limit the works on display to those from British collections means that other pieces that could fill in the story of canine portraiture more fully — such as the Meissen models of the Graf von Brühl’s pugs, or the distinctive early German, Italian and Dutch dog portraits that predate those commissioned by British pet lovers — were presumably not available to the curators for the purposes of this exhibition.
Some of the gallery rooms were quite bare and sparsely hung compared to other recent exhibitions held in the Wallace Collection’s subterranean exhibition rooms. There’s no limit on the amount of dog art produced over the last few millennia, so perhaps this was the result of changing loan timelines thanks to the pandemic, or a conscious decision to avoid a maximalist hanging that conforms to expectations that animal art is essentially twee.
As mentioned previously, the focus of the exhibition is on the Victorian period, but there’s enough here to satisfy the eighteenth-centuryist. Stubbs’s dog portraits greet viewers as they enter the exhibition. Gainsborough’s painting of his own dogs, Tristram and Fox, is also on display, and moving into the later long eighteenth century, Sir John Soane’s dog Fanny makes an appearance, as does Clifton Tomson’s portrait of Lord Byron’s standoffish wolfdog hybrid Lyon (who reportedly ‘very nearly ate’ the young poet).
Predictably, the eighteenth-century is also the point of origin for several of the paintings hung in the room dedicated to ‘The Aristocratic Dog’. Here, the star attraction is Jean-Jacques Bachelier’s Dog of the Havana Breed (1768), on loan from the Bowes Museum. Bachelier’s fluffy white lapdog is a rococo fever dream which compels and repulses its viewer.
However, aside from the aforementioned portraits by Stubbs and Gainsborough, the British long eighteenth-century gets slightly short shrift. (The curators attribute a disparity between French and British portraits of lapdogs on display to an apparent lack of surviving portraits.) For instance, there are no works on display by John Wootton, one of the first British sporting artists to turn his attention to portraits of companion dogs. This is particularly a shame as Wootton’s dog art played with the expectations of portraiture as a genre (we see, for instance, dogs in Arcadian classical settings, or mongrels with portraits of own their parents behind them).
With my dog historian hat on, I would gripe that the exhibition’s obsession with breed is a little anachronistic in places. The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue have inherited a rather late Victorian attitude to dog breeds and their mythology, applying labels to animals at points where these distinctions were more nebulous or, in some cases, simply did not exist. This is something that afflicts approaches to cataloguing dog art in many galleries and museums.
This exhibition very obviously stems from the curator’s love of dogs — in real life as much as in art — a fondness that is palpable from the range of works on display, many of which demonstrate the strength of feeling that their artists (both professional and amateur) had for these animals.