Who Let the Dogs Out?

By Silberman, Vanessa | Art Business News, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Who Let the Dogs Out?


Silberman, Vanessa, Art Business News


Whether a lady or a tramp, canine companions have long been a lovable subject for artists.

"Sit, doggie sit! Good dog!" This phrase, commonly used by dog owners and enthusiasts alike, is also familiar to a growing number of artists who choose to depict man's best friend in their gloriously shaggy or well-trimmed wonder. With wagging tails and panting breath, dogs rank high on the adorable quotient. And dog paintings have become immensely popular and have begun to "retrieve" high prices. For example, at this year's Dogs in Art Auction at Doyle New York, the antique painting "Over the Browns" by Thomas Blinks fetched $96,000. Contemporary dog paintings by artists like George Rodrigue, Ron Burns, Annora Spence and Ashley Collins, to name a few, are also hits.

This wasn't always the case. Until the 1980s, dog paintings were an obscure and undervalued genre. As William Secord, the founding director of the Dog Museum of America in St. Louis, explained: "When I first started in the business, back in the early `80s, the market for dog painting and dog art in general really paralleled the folk-art market. Both were championed by a few individuals who for the most part could be found in antiques stores. During the early `90s, folk art came out of antique stores and entered the mainstream art market. The same thing happened with dog painting," he said.

Secord, who is the author of Dog Painting, 1840-1940, a Social History of the Dog in Art, as well as Dog Painting, The European Breeds, explained that there are a number of reasons why dog art ascended the art market ladder, from the reacceptance of realism in art to the booming economy of the 90s. Secord owns the William Secord Gallery in New York, which specializes in fine 19th- and 20th-century paintings, works on paper and collectibles and books with the dog as their subject.

An Irresistible Face

Dogs have long been a subject in art, from the pre-Renaissance to today. Perhaps it is their irresistible gaze that draws artists in, or perhaps it is their loyalty and unconditional affection. Even artists who aren't known for creating dog art have been unable to resist, such as Jeff Koons, whose "Puppy"--a giant stainless steel sculpture covered with thousands of marigolds, begonias and lobelias--had crowds raving in New York's Rockefeller Center last fall.

But many artists choose the dog as a consistent subject in their work. Artist Laura Farrell of Wakefield, Mass., has been painting dogs for 15 years. "It's their aura, each one of them is so individual, with their own personalities, their own beauty or the way they stand and look at something ... I'm fascinated," she explained.

Artist Ron Burns has been creating his vibrant pop "Matisse meets Andy Warhol" dog paintings for 10 years. His work captures the personality of each pooch, the majority of which live in animal shelters.

"I started painting our three dogs, and when a couple of them sold, my wife and studio manager, Buff, said we can't sell pictures of our `kids.' Shortly thereafter, I went on a vacation in Aspen, and in the middle of the day I just went to a shelter and photographed a bunch of the dogs. When I got back to the studio, I began working from the photographs." Little did Burns know this was the start of something big. He took the finished paintings to Artexpo Los Angeles where they all sold. He also began his tradition of donating a percentage of the profits to the shelter where he photographs the dogs.

Today, Burns is the official Artist-in-Residence of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He has also worked with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), among others. "I try to help as many shelters as I can," he said. "If my art in some way can help make a difference and help animals find homes through some program, then those are the projects I work on.

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