Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Dog!

Our book today is The Dog: 5000 Years of the Dog in Art, written by Tamsin Pickeral and sumptuously, gorgeously published by Merrell. This is far more than a decorative coffee table book - it's the single best visual book-tribute I've ever seen (and I've seen them all) to dogs, an amazing compendium of all the ways canines for six thousand years have worked their way into the visual representations humans make of their world.

There are primitive cave paintings, Egyptian tomb decorations, ancient murals from the Asian steppes, delicate depictions from the Far East, plus an exhaustive collection of more familiar styles and treatments from the last 400 years in the Western world. It's an epic journey and the ultimate treat for any dog enthusiast, as full of well-researched text as it is of beautiful pictures.

Here's a sampling:

2nd century Roman statue

Few surviving works from ancient Rome depict the dog with such tenderness. This small sculpture is exquisite, in rendition, form, and feeling. The anatomical accuracy of the work is absolute, and this, combined with the profound emotion instilled in the cool marble dogs, suggests that the original subjects might have belonged, or at least been well known, to the artist.

the dog-headed St. Christopher

Pictures that portray St. Christopher as dog-headed are seen relatively rarely in modern times; most commonly, he is depicted in a more acceptable way, as a giant of a man carrying Jesus across a swollen river. There are, however, a number of Byzantine icons that depict the saint as dog-headed, an idea deriving from one of the several ancient myths that surround him.

James Stuart, 4th Duke of Lennox and 1st Duke of Richmond, by Anthony van Dyck

Van Dyck was one of the finest painters of dogs of all time, and this magnificent greyhound is perhaps his crowning achievement in the field. There are few images that touch the soul quite like this. The dog leans into its master, James Stuart, its head pressed against the man's side, while Stuart rests his hand on the dog's brow in a gesture of infinite tenderness ... the gesture speaks volumes about the intimacy and tenderness that exist between dog and master.

Charles Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond, by Girolamo Pompeo Batoni

There is great feeling in this work, which depicts the young Charles Lennox with two fine spaniel-type dogs against a Classical background. His demonstrative pose, caressing the silky ears of the dark-brown dog with both hands, is unusual in male portraiture, the traditional gesture being one hand resting, often with a degree of detachment, on the dog's head. It is touching to see the young man, who would become one of the great parliamentary reformists, expressing such obvious sentiment towards the dog.

After the Battue, by Charles Edward Stewart

This is a particularly atmospheric painting by the relatively unknown artist Charles Edward Stewart, depicting hounds returning to the kennel after the hunt. Here the hounds, led by a perky terrier, trudge along the wet, muddy track. Stewart effectively creates an 'end of day' feeling through the hounds' expressions; with their heads mostly down, showing little anticipation, these are tired dogs that have done their job and are not interested in anything but a warm, dry kennel. The sky is heavy with moisture - it is a chilly scene, with the wind whipping the attendant's coat back, but there is also a sense of accomplishment, of a job done and the anticipation of finding comforting shelter from the elements.

Eos, by Edwin Landseer

This image of the superlative greyhound bitch Eos must rank among the greatest dog paintings in history, and it is entirely unsurprising that the clear, beautiful lines and striking composition were the work of Edwin Landseer, favourite artist of Queen Victoria. The picture was a surprise for Prince Albert, so Landseer is rumoured to have had to borrow the prince's hat and gloves without his knowledge and rapidly return them to their rightful place before they were missed. On the table lies a cane, artfully projecting over the edge, but it is perhaps the brilliant, simple background of the red cloth, combined with the restrained black and white of the other elements, that makes the work so distinctive - against this the fluid form of Eos is aesthetically unsurpassable.

to which I'll add two pictures not included in this book - the first is my favorite (for reasons some of you will probably find obvious) of all Norman Rockwell's many paintings featuring dogs:

Home on Leave

And the second is a far more ominous work from the early 20th century, a painting whose surface portrays only peace and gay frivolity - but lurking within the picture is an insidious evil rank enough to topple a monarchy. I'll leave you to spot it on your own, if you dare:

Such a dire depiction notwithstanding, it's a pleasure to kick off 2009 here at Stevereads with such a whole-hearted recommendation! The Dog is a beautiful, endlessly fascinating book every dog-person should own.


Sam said...

'Tamsin Pickerel' has GOT to be the lamest psuedonym I've ever seen you use.

steve said...

What can I say? The book's managing editor (whose own name, Gina Jarvis, is hardly any better!)needed fast copy, and the rent was coming due!

the PICTURES are the main point, either way!

F-Stop said...

What's the legend surrounding St. Christopher which leads him to be depicted with a dog's head? I've never heard it.

Jeffrey.Eaton said...

I'm curious about that too. It's surprisingly Egyptian/Hindu for Christian iconography, even by early Christian iconographic standards.

steve Johnson said...

what have you got against Bassetts?

F-Stop said...

The question is What HASN'T he got against bassetts?

steve said...

Keep in mind, I myself did not NAME the lurking evil in the final painting ...

steve said...

Although right at this moment, what I've got against one particular basset hound is my spleen, my abdomen, and the lower part of my rib cage, all of which are SCREAMING in pain as they're slowly, inexorably crushed to powder under a snoring, farting, wheezing lump of dead weight ...

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