Established in 1990, William Secord Gallery in North America specialises in fine nineteenth century dog and animal paintings. It is a popular destination for those interested in dog art and collectibles. The founding director of The Dog Museum of America, William Secord is a specialist on nineteenth century dog paintings and as an author he has explored the representation of the dogs from their origins to the remarkable paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries up to modern times. He is the author of A Dog Painting, 1840-1940, a Social History of The Dog in Art, as well as three other books on nineteenth century dog paintings. While initially known for its antique dog paintings, the gallery has branched out to the contemporary market. Here’s what William Secord has to share about his passion.
Tryst with dog art…
“I was finishing my PhD at New York University when the American Kennel Club was starting what they then called The Dog Museum of America (Now called The American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, Saint Louis, Missouri). They were looking for a director, and in 1981 they hired me. I stayed with the Museum until 1986, when they moved to St Louis, Missouri. I wanted to stay in New York, so I started working out of my apartment: writing about dog art and selling 19th century dog paintings,” told William Secord of William Secord Gallery.
The art gallery…
“I felt that in order to properly display an artist’s work in depth, one needed a gallery that was open to the public, on a regular basis. I worked privately out of my apartment for four years before opening my gallery at 52 East 76th Street in 1990,” he added.
Artists – then and now…
“Painters of dogs and animals were in the mainstream of art in the mid-nineteenth century. The best of them are exhibited at the Royal Academy in London and at other important venues. Today, the art world is much more heterogeneous, and realistic, contemporary dog paintings are no longer in the mainstream. Artists simply continue the tradition,” he shared adding, “The best known artists of 19th century were Sir Edwin Landseer, who was the animal painter for Queen Victoria, and in modern times, I am a big fan of the works of Christine Merrill and Pamela Hall.”
“My favourite one is “Queen Victoria’s Favorite Pets,” by Edwin Landseer, because it is the quintessential pet portrait,” told William.
My lovely pet…
A dog art lover got to be a dog lover too. “Yes, I have a Dandie Dinmont Terrier, who is a companion animal. His father, though, twice won the breed at the Westminster Kennel Club,” concluded William.
History of dog art
(Excerpts: A Dog Painting, 1840-1940, a Social History of The Dog in Art by William Secord)
Queen Victoria, perhaps the archetypical nineteenth century animal lover, provided an extraordinary precedent for the commissioning and collecting of dog paintings. Her lead, as well as the active involvement of prominent dog fanciers, created and encouraged countless others. One can hardly imagine nineteenth century painting, for instance, without the sometimes anthropomorphic paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, one of Queen Victoria’s favourite artists. His work for the Queen and Prince Albert, in England as well as in the Scottish Highlands, provides a fascinating chronicle of the many breeds whose companionship the royal couple enjoyed.
Nor was their patronage limited to Landseer, for Burton Barber, Gourlay Steell, Muad Earl and Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl to name a few, were also employed to depict royal pets.
This interest in chronicling one’s pet, pure-bred or otherwise, was certainly not limited to royalty and in the last quarter of the nineteenth century pet portraits reached a height of popularity.
Two important categories of dog painting emerge. The first includes depictions of sporting dogs and hounds, painted to illustrate the superior working abilities of the animals. The second is that of the pure-bred dog, depicted to illustrate the breed characteristics in general and the finer points of one animal in particular.
A third category of dog painting may also be delineated, one which by its nature in more generic—that of the pet portrait. While pure-bred dog fanciers may have celebrated the finer points of their breed, the owner of a beloved pet, whether pure-bred or not, was no less interested in having a lasting portrayal of his dog.
The pet dog might also be pure-bred, but in the pet portrait the intention was to depict the dog more casually in a domestic environment. The pet portrait portrayed the animal engaging in typical canine activities such as resting, sleeping, begging or performing tricks.
These three categories also relate to parallel developments in the United States, although the pure-bred dog portrait did not become as popular there until the early twentieth century. Dog painting in nineteenth century America was dominated by the sporting breeds, which was among the first to be shown in organised American dog shows.
In America, similar, if somewhat later developments created fascinating chronicle of American dogs. While Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait predominated in the nineteenth century, others such as Percival Rosseau, Edmund Osthaus, Gustav Muss-Arnolt and J M Tracy became known for their portraits of sporting dogs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.