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.
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.