Just as Impressionist paintings provide visual pleasure, pets brighten one’s emotions. Put the two together, and the result is pure delight. In their brilliant images of modernity and leisure, Impressionist painters often painted dogs. Household animals were a part of middle-class life captured in works whose pictorial riches reveal the comfort and well-being found in prosperity.
The 19th century saw revolutionary economic and demographic transformations, many of which were accompanied by cultural changes, such as in the arts and in the role of domestic animals. Economic prosperity produced a growing urban leisure class based on commerce and industry, a class whose power displaced that of nobility and agricultural workers living in the countryside. As a symptom of that change, domestic animals evolved from utilitarian outdoor creatures—hunting and herding dogs or mouse-chasing cats—to what we call pets, ubiquitous indoor denizens of our middle-class households.
Known in France as the bourgeoisie, this social class also supported Impressionist painters, whose imagery featured the lifestyles, families and possessions of their newly expanded and prosperous clientele. Indeed, the famous Impressionist technique—with its spontaneously and energetically applied brushstrokes—embodied the sense of freedom, dynamism and self-confidence that characterized this most progressive social element. Impressionist artists were devoted to representations of modern life based on their personal experience and observation. That dogs appear in a significant number of important pictures testifies not only to their presence in the interiors and surroundings where the Impressionists set their scenes, but also to their new role as favorite companions in leisure and beloved members of the family.
One of the most famous pictures to express these values is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s portrait, Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children. In it, the family Newfoundland serves as both a wooly guardian in the absence of the busy publisher father and as a patient playmate for the daughter, whose brother (dressed like a girl, as was the fashion) presses closer to his mother. Monsieur Charpentier published the most avant-garde authors, and it was important that his choices in visual art and objects demonstrate his trendy taste.
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The Japanese screen, bamboo furniture and Chinese rug reveal the contemporary fad for Orientalia, while the informal representation of his wife as mother rather than goddess (despite her expensive gown from the fashion house of Worth and Co.) is another reference to his modern point of view. Wealthy families usually had nurses taking care of their children. In this picture, it seems as if Madame Charpentier herself has assumed responsibility. In truth, Marguerite Charpentier was in many ways her husband’s equal partner. She hosted parties for artists and men of letters, and made decisions on household decoration and art. The choice of Renoir for this portrait also reflected the Charpentiers’ adventurous taste.
Even the dog harbors a literary reference, for he was named Porthos, after one of the three musketeers in Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel. One notices that Porthos anchors the composition at its base, like a reliable foundation for the family’s security. He seems both content and careful as he supports his master’s little girl. Newfoundlands were (and are) valued for their tireless loyalty and gentleness. This image of the family, paid for by the absent father, reflects both his reality and his aspirations as a successful entrepreneur. The dog’s prominence is therefore a telling commentary on the importance of pets at the very heart of a family’s moments of both pride and privacy.
There is, of course, a long history of dogs in art. Prized for their devotion and intelligence, dogs have enjoyed “best friend” status since before written history. They were such faithful companions that in ancient and medieval art, sculpted representations often appear at the foot of the tombs of nobility. Beginning in the Renaissance, they appear frequently in hunting scenes—sleek Greyhounds accompany aristocrats on horseback, or Beagles and Bloodhounds travel with more ordinary woodsmen deep into European forests. Certain painters, like Englishman Edward Landseer, who was later knighted, made careers depicting their clients’ favorite pets.
Where Impressionist painting differs from such traditions is in the inclusion of pets in scenes that focus primarily on people. Yet, as in Renoir’s portrait of the Charpentiers, the canine presence is not just factual, it also provides a commentary on people’s lives and their relationships.
An earlier painting by Renoir, The Inn of Mother Anton, shows some of the artist’s friends, including Impressionist Alfred Sisley to the right. They have gathered at a local haunt near the Fontainebleau forest, where many of them spent their days painting—Impressionism was, after all, primarily an art of landscape, even though Renoir himself preferred portraiture both as a form of social contact and as a saleable commodity. The ungroomed Poodle in the foreground watches us as the companions relax, roll their smokes and discuss events in the newspaper.
The standing figure is Jules Le Coeur, a patron of the young artists who lived nearby and enjoyed dogs as his hunting companions, as we know from another painting by Renoir. But whether the Poodle is his is impossible to know. It could just as likely belong to the innkeeper, who is shown with her back turned as her daughter clears the table. The dog could be part of the establishment, whose warm and familial atmosphere included Mother Antony’s willingness to let artists paint caricatures or scribble graffiti on her walls, as in the background.
Comparing Renoir’s The Inn of Mother Antony to Mary Cassatt’s charming and brilliantly colored Little Girl in a Blue Armchair is instructive. In the sumptuous, generously windowed sitting room, the furniture and upholstery patterns are the center of aesthetic interest, while the center of psychological interest is the relationship between the girl and her puppy. Of course, everyone knows that pets are often associated with children, adored for their childlike qualities and sometimes treated better than their human peers, who are raised to conform to rules and traditions. They are also often companions and playmates for children, who enjoy their enduring friendship.
In Cassatt’s picture, the little miss has flopped down in an armchair. I suspect she just returned from a day at school, since she is still wearing her plaid uniform, with matching socks and headband. Looking a little dazed, she seems unaware and indifferent to the fact that her petticoats are showing. This intimate moment is witnessed only by her pet. The little dog itself is probably a Yorkshire Griffon, which was one of the most popular breeds of lap dog in the late 19th century. Cassatt had asked her friend, painter Edgar Degas, to get her a puppy, as he knew a dog breeder. (The 19th century also saw the creation of kennel clubs, with standards for breeding and pedigree.) Could this be her pup in the picture? We know such dogs can be high-strung, and this one, though resting, seems ready to go at a moment’s notice. If someone were to enter the room, there’s no doubt he’d bound in a flash from his cozy nesting place.
In placing the Yorkie in a position of surveillance, Cassatt links the viewer to the composition. As in The Inn of Mother Antony, the human figure appears to be unaware that she is being painted, while the dog acknowledges the outside world. The effect is to join the realm of the painting with that of the viewer, enhancing the illusion of realism despite, in the Cassatt, the broadly painted abstractions of brushed slipcovers, which remind us that we are looking at a painted surface.
The tradition revealed in both paintings is one that turns the most ordinary visual scene into an extraordinary experience of art. By acknowledging the presence of an observer, the pets call attention to the maker of the image, and engage in a sort of dialogue with the viewer. Thus, Renoir and Cassatt used these pets not only to accompany and comment on the people in their pictures, but to call attention to their own presence as sensitive observers and creative portrayers of intimate scenes.
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.