February 9, 2015

Animal Portraits

Bichitr, Portrait of the Elephant 'Alam Guman, India, ca. 1640; opaque watercolor and gold on paper, whole page 18.1 x 12.6 in.
Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

We love our pets, and those of us who've had the honor of knowing and working with large animals love them too. One day at the Met I saw the painting above and was surprised that it was actually a portrait, not a generic painting of an elephant. The inscription within the gold reads:
Likeness of 'Alam Guman Gajraj [the arrogant one of the earth, king of elephants, whose value is one lakh [a hundred thousand rupees]. 
He was given to the Mughul emperor Jahangir during New Year celebrations in 1614. This painting made me think about other works that treated animals as important beings, worthy of being immortalized in art.  

Paulus Potter, The Bull, 1647; oil on canvas, 92.7 x 133.5 in. 
Image courtesy of the Maritshuis.

Although this bull isn't named, I've always thought of him as a grand character, the star of a large and detailed canvas. The painting used to be known as The Young Bull, and I don't know why the title has changed, but he is certainly an "arrogant one of the earth".

George Stubbs, Eclipse at Newmarket, with a Groom and a Jockey, ca, 1770; oil on canvas, 39 1/2 x 51 3/4 in. 
Photographed from a comprensive Stubbs catalog

George Stubbs is mainly known as a painter of horses, and it is easy to dismiss him as such. But his paintings are so beautifully made, with clarity of form and structure, that they transcend their subjects. I've seen Stubbs paintings at the Yale Center for British Art, and was entranced by them. Since we're talking about the subjects, we can admire this portrait of Eclipse, a famous racehorse of his time. Stubbs was an anatomist, and did detailed studies of horses and of other birds and mammals, including humans. 

George Stubbs, Ringwood, a Brocklesby Foxhound, 1792; oil on canvas 39 1/2 x 49 1/2 in.

Ringwood was certainly a handsome fellow, and Stubbs' portrait of him shows his regal bearing and gentle expression. There is poignancy in his gaze, a bit of sadness around the lifted eyelid. In my Stubbs catalog, I read that the breeding of hounds improved greatly over the 18th century, and Brocklesby hounds were very influential; so Ringwood was an important dog, just as 'Alam Guman was an important elephant. 

American School, Cat and Kittens, ca. 1872/1883; oil on millboard, 12 x 13 7/8 in.

This intense cat with her kittens were not important, not named, yet there's a distinct sense that the unknown artist was picturing very specific animals, each with his or her distinctive markings. I get the feeling that for them, play was a very serious business.

Alex Katz, Dog at Duck Trap, 1975; lithograph in 10 colors, 29 1/8 x 43 in.
Image courtesy AlexKatz.com

When I think of contemporary artists portraying animals, this Alex Katz print of his dog came to mind. What a sweet, happy fellow (though it might be a female). From another print you can see at the link above, I learned that the dog's name was Sunny, which seems quite appropriate.

Anne Arnold, Sunny (Skye Terrier), 1978; acrylic on terra cotta, 22 1/2 x 10 x 36 in. 
All Anne Arnold images courtesy of Alexandre Gallery

Anne Arnold was a great animal portraitist; her sculpture is full of wit and charm; I am smiling while working on this, enjoying the presence of her marvelous beings. Her work is also about recognizable personalities: when I saw the image of this sculpture I thought it must be Alex Katz's dog, down to the lolling tongue, and sure enough, when I clicked on the information, there was Sunny.

Anne Arnold, Quixote (Cat), 1982; acrylic on terra cotta, 14 1/2 x 14 x 13 in.

Anne Arnold, Ishmael, 1982; fired and painted clay, 16 3/4 x 15 x 18 in.

Ishmael and Quixote must be Maine coon cats because of the ear hair and the abundant bib-like hair on their chests. They both have a stolid seriousness, and an imperious gaze.

Anne Arnold, Sitting Cat, ca. 1988; carved wood polychrome, 20 x 21 x 7 3/4 in.

This cat, not named, is more lithe; a quicksilver intelligence, ready to run and leap.

Anne Arnold, Gretchen (Dachshund), 1978; acrylic on terra cotta, 20 1/2 x 9 x 16 in.

What a sweet girl Gretchen is! She sits like a good girl, attentive to what is being said; expectant too.

Anne Arnold, Grip (Bull Terrier), 1978; acrylic on terra cotta, 24 1/2 x 34 x 10 in. 

Grip is all attention, or maybe he's actually posing for this portrait. When I first saw this sculpture, I immediately thought of the dog in Little Rascals, the white dog with a circle around his eye. It turns out that Pete the dog was a succession of American pit bull terriers, so I was correct in seeing the resemblance. Although Arnold's sculpture is simplified compared to the heightened specificity of Stubbs' paintings, it is still accurate in form and feeling, and so sensitive to personality. For as we know, animals are as varied in their characters as humans, and every bit as worthy of commemoration in portraiture.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this romp with the critters. I love trying to capture the expressions of animals. It is difficult to do because they never stay still. These artists are wonderful.

    1. I'm happy you enjoyed the post, Lisa. It was fun for me to put together.