When it came to art, the formidable polymath Dr. Samuel Johnson definitely knew what he liked. "I would rather see the portrait of a dog that I know," said the good doctor, "than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world."
This may seem aimed at the art snobs of his day, but Johnson was on to something. Witness a boom in the past five years in the sales of classic dog paintings among buyers who would rather see a portrait of man's best friend than deck their walls with allegorical, surreal, or abstract pictures. Instead of a Tiepolo, Miró, or Rothko, they're hanging a Fido.
To be fair, the price of a good abstract painting could buy a pack of dog pictures. But the high end of this very specialized market generates auction and gallery prices up in the French Impressionist range. One of the most famous painters of dogs was also the paragon of equine artists, the 18th-century Englishman George Stubbs. A few years ago, a Stubbs picture of a Landseer Newfoundland (ca. 1803)—ironically a dog named after another painter, Sir Edwin Landseer—sold at Sotheby's London for $3,667,912. This is the kind of money that only a Stubbs can bring, but the works of other well-known dog painters of the 18th and 19th centuries have risen dramatically in value. A picture of foxhounds by John Emms sold at Christie's in 1998 for $464,500, and another went for $140,000 in 2000. An 1870 English painting of pointers in a field by Thomas Blinks sold in the early nineties for $24,000; eight years later it changed hands for $120,000.
Most enthusiasts for dog pictures are not thinking about investment potential, however. William Secord, whose Manhattan gallery is the only one in the United States devoted to dog art, estimates that 80 percent of those who buy pictures from his gallery do so because they love them, not because of appreciating values. "People who don't even have dogs buy these pictures," Secord says. (One can't help but note that dog paintings, unlike dogs, do not have to be walked.) The big names, in addition to Stubbs, Emms, Landseer, and Blinks, are Arthur Wardle, Alfred Wheeler, Ruben Ward Binks, and the Earl family, Thomas, George, and Maud.
Dogs in paintings often had a symbolic significance. A tiny griffon terrier in a Jan van Eyck painting of a bride and groom is thought to symbolize fidelity. And the pug is said to stand for freemasonry.
The vogue for dog pictures started with Queen Victoria, an avid dog fancier who had 75 dogs at any given time during her reign and commissioned Landseer, one of her favorite artists, to paint portraits of many of them. In an age when royalty set the style, the Queen's whim set off a rage among the upper and middle classes for purebred dogs.
I discovered the world of dog painting when I reluctantly decided to sell a French 19th-century painting of a battle-scarred English bull terrier given to me years ago by a lawyer who had it displayed behind his desk. I called up the William Secord Gallery, sent a Polaroid of the noble Tasso (looking as steadfast as Winston Churchill), and shipped the picture from my home in California. We then visited the gallery and saw our dog, in a freshly gilded frame, looking quite handsome amid the other appealing portraits. In establishing a price for my picture, Secord had explained the hierarchy of value in the world of dog art. Cavalier King Charles spaniels, a breed that was favored by Queen Victoria (and is now popular with ladies who lunch), are top dogs, with hunting pointers and setters and field dogs loping close behind. English bull terriers, he gently warned, tend to be an acquired taste. Alan Fausel, director of paintings at Doyle New York, a gallery where an annual Dog in Art auction is held each February, agrees that hunting themes sell well. "Hunting setters and pointers tend to get a lot of attention," he says. "As it happens, a lot of commissions in the golden age of dog painting—from the 1850s until around 1930—were for those breeds. In this age of cartoons and Disneyana people like to see dogs being dogs." Another criterion is how much an artist focuses on the canine theme. A major criticism by connoisseurs and dealers is "not enough dog."
One warning about dog paintings: You can come to love them as if they really were dogs. My bull terrier portrait had been with us for so long that my wife and I had come to think of him as part of the family, and the decision to sell was an emotional one. Not even professionals are immune. Joan Peck, a private dealer who has specialized in dog paintings for 17 years, remembers having found it very difficult to give up a 19th-century Byron Webb painting that featured a young girl with a Landseer Newfoundland against a backdrop of the Scottish Highlands. "I just hated the idea," she says, "of not being able to see it every day." After a few months in the Secord Gallery's classy adoption shelter, my old friend Tasso found a new owner, and now adorns the wall of a spacious Park Avenue apartment. He has come up in the world, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer dog.
The best sources for traditional paintings are: the William Secord Gallery (52 East 76th Street, New York; 212-249-0075; www.dogpainting.com), Doyle New York (175 East 87th Street, New York; 212-427-2730; www.doylenewyork.com), and Joan Peck (1 West 67th Street, New York; 212-580-2611).
Rex, Stop, Sit, Pose!
Just as classic dog paintings are enjoying new popularity, so is modern pet portraiture. Of course, frequent photo ops with our presidents and their dogs may be having some effect.
If dogs are the new children, as is often noted, it's no surprise that their proud human companions want them preserved in paintings. The range of artistic talent is wide, from a kind of paint-by-numbers banality to technique and originality that rival 19th-century masters. At the top end such portraitists as CHRISTINE MERRILL (410-433-3647) and BARRIE BARNETT (301-652-4501), artists whose work is quite different (Merrill uses oil, Barnett pastel) but equally excellent, are very much in demand. After a show in Palm Beach a few years ago, Merrill, a fourth-generation artist who painted her first dog picture in 1968, received so many commissions that she had a two-year waiting list. Barnett, who began her career painting portraits of people, finds dogs endlessly interesting. "The physical variety is wonderful," she says. "You can never get bored." According to Barnett, no matter how tough clients may be in business, with their dogs they're "entirely different."
The best dog portraitists will travel long distances to spend time with their subjects, then complete portraits in their studios. Barnett once spent three days hiking in Glacier National Park with the English mastiffs of a Montana cardiologist in order to get to know the dogs. Barnett says she's "on the lookout 24-7 for good settings," then looks for the right dog to match. She once saw her daughter, dressed in black, sitting on a dock in Inverness, California, and had her lie down for a photo, later changing her daughter into a Labrador retriever. Like Merrill, Barnett has a waiting list. "I have much more work than I prefer," she says. "I haven't even painted my own Corgi."
Merrill's fee ranges from $10,000 to $18,000, plus travel expenses. It's an extra $2,000 to put, say, your home in the background. Barnett's pastels cost from $6,000 to $8,000.
Less expensive is the photographic portrait. Recommended are JIM DRATFIELD of Petography in New York (212-245-0914; www.petography.com), and KERRY MANSFIELD in San Francisco (415-282-2055; www.kerrymansfield.com). Dratfield specializes in timeless black-and-white or sepia-toned portraits. Clients include Henry and Nancy Kissinger (or rather, their dog, Amelia). He works mostly in the New York City area, but will travel. Dratfield likes to photograph his subjects in their own environments. "I'm looking for a dog's personality," he says. "That's easier to capture when they're in a familiar place." He doesn't count hours or rolls of film, and will do anything to get his subjects involved. "I'll sing a Puccini aria to an Italian greyhound if I have to." His $1,000 fee includes 20 to 30 prints, from which clients can select three images. Along with the finished prints Dratfield includes 12 note cards or a framed portrait.
Mansfield, on the other hand, generally works in color, and prefers her subjects solo, i.e., without their owners hovering. "The more an owner is involved, the harder it is to get a good picture of the dog as itself." She too likes to go where a dog lives, and she'll spend around three hours ("often three very chaotic hours") with her subject. "Most dogs will peter out after five rolls of twenty-exposure film," she says. Mansfield charges $400 for a half-day shoot and provides contact sheets for five rolls of film (approximately 100 shots) and two final 8 x 10 or 11 x 14 color prints.