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Dogs in Impressionist Painting
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Madame Georges Charpentier and Her Children, Georgette-Berthe and Paul-Emile-Charles, 1878

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.

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