Let’s talk about pet portraiture, a memorial in paint or metal of that other member of the family. The most common subject is a horse, followed closely by dogs and far behind is a wide range of creatures – cats, canaries, snakes, fish and whatever else people want in their homes. “Someone once painted a lizard, and we had a painting with a frog in it,” said Jaynie Spector, owner of the Charleston, South Carolina-based Dog and Horse Fine Art & Portraiture gallery, which represents “more than 30 artists across the United States and Europe” who specialize in animal art and take commissions for pet portraits. Most of those artists are painters, but some are sculptors who are asked to create a bronze of some animal that has passed away.
“Their animals are their children, and there are millions of people who feel that way,” said Ellen Silverberg, an East Hampton, New York transplant to Oakland Park, Florida who has been painting dogs (“I’ve also done guinea pigs, birds, cats, I did one horse”) for decades. “I never treat with people who wonder why spend so much on a pet. It just seems so obvious and natural to the people I deal with.”
Pet portraiture is subset of the larger portraiture industry. We more quickly associate portraiture with humans, mostly older males dressed in dark suits painted with dark backgrounds. Those men tend to be university presidents, corporation founders and presidents, U.S. presidents and state governors, federal agency secretaries, law firm senior partners, Supreme Court judges and hospital benefactors – people dripping with success – whose retirements are celebrated by stately dinners and the commissioning of a portrait, which will hang next to those of their predecessors. Take a walk down the long Cross Hall in the White House to see portraits of all the presidents before Barack Obama (his will be painted after he leaves office) or to the Senate Office Building where one sees sculpted busts of every U.S. vice-president (Richard Cheney’s was unveiled earlier this year).
Perhaps closest to the stately pose of the university president are portraits of horses, which generally depict these animals standing tall and majestic. For dogs and other pets, however, the look tends to be more informal – a dog laying down with one ear cocked, for instance, or a child petting a cat on her lap. Babette Bloch, a sculptor in Redding, Connecticut, was once commissioned to create a (larger-than-life) stainless steel pregnant male seahorse. “They can carry up to 1,500 eggs in their pouches, that’s a lot,” she said. She did her research, though, and came through with an anatomically correct portrait. Research is an important part of the job, she claimed. A veterinarian commissioned her to create stainless steel portraits of his three dogs, all of which were different breeds. “The fact that this was a veterinarian put extra pressure on me,” but she looked through a breeder’s guide (“to get a sense of the perfect proportions”) and an animal anatomy book, as well as studied each dog individually to see what was characteristic or less than ideal with each. “I’d go back and forth to the anatomy book and the breeder book and the dogs themselves so I understood that this dog has a little arthritis, that dog’s left leg is a little shorter than others, how the fur lies on the body. It’s all about seeing.”
While some pet portraitists work through a gallery such as Dog & Horse Fine Art (www.dogandhorsefineart.com) or the Birmingham, Alabama-based Portraits, Inc. (http://portraitsinc.com/), Bloch relies for her commissions – humans, mostly, with the occasional pet – through word-of-mouth and Web site searches. A friend of Kate Hyland of Windsor, Illinois “knew I liked to draw, and she asked me to do a drawing of her horse. I did, and everyone went crazy over it. Then, someone who had a dog asked me to draw his dog, and people liked that, too. Then, everyone who had a dog asked me to draw it.” Hyland had studied art a little bit in college but, at the time, was working at a factory. “My husband and I sat down one day and realized I could make money from this.” And so she quit the factory and began her career as a pet portraitist, busiest just before Christmas but with work to do throughout the year.
Not all of those who commission animal portraits are private pet owners. Many of the commissions for dog portraits that come to Lena Toritch, a sculptor in Salt Lake City, Utah, are from police and fire departments or military regiments with canine units. For instance, outside the Canton, Ohio police station is her lifesize bronze of “Jethro,” and the federal Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosive has her bronze of “Nash,” who was shot to death while pursuing armed robbery suspects. The Marine Corps’ Camp Lejune in Jacksonville, North Carolina and the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville, North Carolina also have her work sited on their grounds. However, most of her clients are homeowners who just want to remember their pets fondly. “People call me the dog queen,” she said.
No artist sets out on a career with the idea of painting homeowners’ pets, and for many of the artists who are commissioned to paint or sculpt animals this isn’t all they do in art. It does pay, and demand does not appear to recede with the economy. And, some of those pet owners might buy other types of art as well.
By Daniel Grant