The Museum of the Dog Is a Love Letter to Man’s Best Friend
“The only thing on earth that loves you more than you love yourself.” That’s Josh Billings, an otherwise forgotten 19th-century humorist, expressing an ageless truth about dogs.
The American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog (MoD), located on Park Avenue in Manhattan, returns some of that sweet, unconditional affection. The two-story space (which opens to the public on February 8th, after more than two decades in St. Louis and a few early years in the New York Life Building) is well-lit and generally state-of-the-art, with luminous interactive displays and larger-than-life sculptures that lend it the air of a shrine—appropriate for canine celebration, the closest thing to a national religion America has to offer.Like any religion, dog-loving is subtler and stranger than it appears. The hundreds of oil paintings, bronzes, dolls, photographs, and prints in the MoD’s exhibition (culled from the MoD and American Kennel Club’s private collections) suggest the ways in which human beings’ view of their pets—and, per Billings, themselves—have changed over the centuries. Taken together, they’re something like a long, dreamy catalogue of the loyalty, the friendship, and the love we think—or at least hope—we deserve.
If there was a golden age of dog art, it was surely the 19th century, as the MoD’s director of cultural resources, Alan Fausel, told me. This was, after all, the time of
You could dismiss 19th-century dog paintings, like Kinkade’s landscapes, as kitsch and nothing more—but even kitsch tells you something worth knowing about the culture that produced it. The Victorians were rapacious collectors, and it’s possible to interpret the popularity of dog art as symptomatic of a desire for control, or even a bowdlerized version of the whole misbegotten colonialist project. William Frank Calderon’s Orphans (1893), a striking oil painting of an Irish wolfhound and two pups—and one of the MoD’s most impressive pieces—seems almost like a cunning satire of that project. The dogs crouch on a Persian rug near a Flemish tapestry—under Pax Britannica, these objects have been ripped, orphaned, from their rightful place and time.
But there was also something nostalgic, even melancholy, about the Victorians’ fondness for animals. As the Industrial Revolution devoured the English countryside, painters’ evocations of nature grew more and more reverent. Under these circumstances, the dog often became a symbol for the dividedness of Victorian life itself—linked both to the vanishing wilderness and to the domestic sphere. Most of the art in the MoD oscillates between these poles. The massive, ruthless dog in Richard Adsell’s The Poacher At Bay (1865) embodies “nature red in tooth and claw” (to borrow from another eminent Victorian). Hard to believe this beast shares any DNA with Millie, the late George H. W. Bush’s English springer spaniel, the subject of a 1990 oil painting by Christine Merrill in which she looks as mild and stately as her owner.
The paintings of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge—whose A Friend in Need (1903) is known far and wide by its excruciatingly literal nickname, “Dogs Playing Poker”—are tellingly absent from the MoD (though a blockbuster show must be in the works, sure as the sun will rise). Gone, too—save for one token image—are the photographs of
Consider Noble’s Pug and Terrier (1875), an artwork of such pathos, economy, and pointed social commentary, it might have made Dickens sniffle. A scrawny terrier wearing a collection jar around its neck (a common tactic for fundraisers on the streets of London at the time) faces a handsome bulldog (not coincidentally, the quintessential English dog). Thanks to Noble’s forced perspective, we can’t see either animal’s owner, but we also can’t help but imagine them—one a charity case begging for alms, the other as cocky and well-fed as his pet. It’s all rather schlocky and overdetermined, but it’s authentically moving, as well, like a canine retelling of The Prince and the Pauper; a reminder that art about animals is always about people, too.Many of the MoD’s most effective pieces strike a similar tone, with dogs evoking a loss or a tragedy they cannot really understand. Earl’s Silent Sorrow (1910), completed shortly after the death of Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, features the late monarch’s beloved wire fox terrier, Caesar, resting his head on an empty armchair, waiting for a master who’ll never scratch his ears again.
Edward has never really lived down his reputation as a spoiled playboy, not that Caesar knew anything about that—as Aldous Huxley was later to put it, “to his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.” Here, the late king’s pink armchair seems to be fading away—as if, when he breathed his last breath, he took all the color and liveliness of turn-of-the-century England with him. This turned out to be truer than Earl could have known—a few short years later, Europe was waging the war to end all wars, an entire generation of English youths had been decimated by gunfire and disease, and Earl herself had emigrated to the United States, where she’d spend the remainder of her life.
At the end of the MoD’s exhibition, there’s a glass case containing a tiny, oddly jaunty-looking set of remains. They belonged, Fausel informed me, to Belgrave Joe, a legendarily prolific fox terrier who was once sold for his weight in silver, and whose descendants include some of the most renowned show dogs of modern times. It’s a strange note to end on, too macabre to be adorable and too specific to the world of dog-breeding to be much of a crowd-pleaser.
But I suppose that’s what impresses me: the owner who chose to preserve the skeleton didn’t see Joe as a pet or a childish indulgence. He genuinely respected his animal, and wanted to make sure the world would remember him forever. I can’t think of a work of art that better sums up everything creepy and silly and special about our friendship with Canis lupus familiaris.