The other well-known female Impressionist, Berthe Morisot, actually painted several dogs, but the most moving and personal is a sketchily finished image of her daughter Julie with a pet Greyhound, Young Woman and Her Greyhound Laërtes. Julie, in mourning for her recently deceased father, takes comfort in the company of her pet. Indeed, perhaps her mother keeps grief at bay through the act of painting, which her late husband (painter Edouard Manet’s brother) had encouraged, against convention. The dog was the gift of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, a close family friend. There is a poignant allusion to family life in this representation of what remains of the family, as well as an echo of what has been lost. The empty chair, toward which Julie’s pet seems mournfully to gaze; the blank look on Julie’s face; and the incompleteness of the canvas itself seem to reference such emotions.
Speaking of Edouard Manet, there are a few exceptions to the rule that the Impressionists avoided the kind of pet portrait on which lesser artists might have built a career. The most interesting one is Manet’s picture of the Japanese Chin named Tama. The name means “jewel” in Japanese and suggests that such a rare breed was a treasure in Europe. Tama belonged to the well-known Parisian collector and connoisseur of Asian porcelains and decorative arts, Henri Cernuschi, whose former townhouse is now a museum that bears his name. Not content with an ordinary dog portrait, Manet showed the delicate and pampered creature in a yard with a little Japanese doll.
Those who knew Manet’s works might have recognized the parody of his own earlier painting of a women dressed as a toreador. In both instances, the flatness and frontality of the composition echo characteristics of Japanese prints. Even the bold lettering of the little dog’s name in this picture is a Western version of the calligraphy that often appears on Japanese works. Not only has Manet given us a charming portrait of a favorite pet, he has again referenced himself as an artist, one highly aware of cultural traditions in which both he and his patron share an interest. In another famous picture by Manet called simply The Artist, he showed Impressionist printmaker Marcellin Desboutin returning from a walk with a large Setter-like dog.
The Impressionist’s great predecessor and sometime-companion of Claude Monet, Realist Gustave Courbet, was one of the century’s greatest painters of animals. In several of his self-portraits, he is accompanied by a sleek black Spaniel. Monet himself seems to have ignored pet presences, even when Renoir, painting the same scene right next to him, recorded them. And we must certainly not forget Edgar Degas, whose famous portrait, The Bellelli Family, shows a Poodle or other small dog exiting a stuffy bourgeois interior to escape family conflict.
The Impressionist tradition of pets pictured in intimate interiors continued well into the 20th century. For example, in the charming Nude in Bathtub, Pierre Bonnard included a small Dachshund-type dog reclining on a rug, keeping his mistress company as she performs her bathing ritual. The painting, with its plethora of detail and bold composition, is typical of Bonnard’s work.
In a 19th-century book entitled L’Esprit des bêtes (The Mind of Beasts), a certain Alphonse Toussenel claimed: “In the beginning, God created man. Finding him weak, he gave him the dog. He charged the dog to see, hear, smell, and run for man.” He should have added “to provide friendship.” The spread of pet-keeping to the middle classes and its association with wholesomeness are modern phenomena. With their complete dependence and undying love, dogs complement human lives and become vehicles for emotional relationships. The diverse roles they play in Impressionist paintings acknowledge both the intelligence of dogs and their intimacy with their human companions.