LONDON — In March 2023, Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney opened at the Wallace Collection, postponed by three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as its 2022 Disney exhibition benefited from a sizable captive audience, expanding its potential visitor appeal beyond typical gallery goers, so dogs will similarly find a vast proportion of the population favorably predisposed. (Sorry cat lovers; maybe stick with Amsterdam’s De Kattenkabinet.)
The Wallace seems well aware of the schmaltzy, all-forgiving attitudes dog lovers bestow on man’s best friend; the show’s official hashtag is the tongue-in-cheek #WallaceWoofs, and its press release describes curator Dr. Xavier Bray as “himself the proud owner of two pugs, Bluebell and her son, Winston.” The ridiculousness of this statement, were it to appear in any other art press release, indicates how indulgent we are toward our pets.
Nonetheless, Bray is at pains to frame the survey as academically as any other exhibition; it focuses on the British fashion for collecting dog portraits over the centuries, therefore most loans are from British collections, and it is segmented into themes including “Artists’ Dogs,” “Royal Dogs,” “Toy Dogs,” and “Aristocratic Dogs,” with examples studiously demonstrating the histories and characteristics of pooches in these categories. Its opening section, “Drawn From Life,” examines cases of technical draughtsmanship, including a c. 1490–95 metalpoint study of a dog’s paw by Leonardo da Vinci, loaned from the National Gallery of Scotland.
The survey also excludes works with a human presence, adding a quasi-scientific element to its study of “the unique bond between humans and their canine companions” by positioning the dogs as proxies for our human sensibilities. At its simplest, this results in dog portraits with more meaning to the dogs’ owners than to the rest of us. A jarring lurch into contemporary paintings by David Hockney of his dachshunds from various cropped angles, of no great technical accomplishment, is like a friend showing you endless baby photos. Similarly, Queen Victoria’s amateur watercolor daubings of her dog “Pudge” (1850) are notable solely because of who made them.
It is a substantial section of works by Landseer, who imbued narrative scenes of dogs with human qualities for moralizing and satirical purposes, that is most intellectually and technically compelling. His 1848 “Alexander and Diogenes” uses different breed shapes and anthropomorphized expressions to tell this classical moralizing tale. Your capacity to enjoy these pieces may be colored by your opinion of how self-aware they appear; they are either the worst of insufferable Victorian sentimentality or deliberately naff but entertaining tales playing to fashionable tastes at the time. Looking at the fluffy animals among the trappings of legal administration in his most successful piece, “Laying Down the Law” (c. 1840), meant to satirize the legal system, Landseer was certainly aware of the power of the absurd.
As far as exhibition themes go, “dog portraits” is somehow inspired, open-ended, and restrictive, as demonstrated here. Unlike other exhibitions presenting an unusual theme or thesis, the show does not seem to be stretching to breathlessly present its subject “as you’ve never seen before,” or to emphasize any under-appreciated aspects. Moreover, a little like dogs themselves, it is a complimentary companion piece to the human story. Despite this, the subject’s enduring appeal and inbuilt emotional response in many viewers — even those indifferent to our canine friends will likely find the very premise amusing — almost guarantees enjoyment.
Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney continues at the Wallace Collection (Hertford House, Manchester Square, London, England) through October 15. The exhibition was curated by Dr. Xavier Bray.