Title: A King Charles Spaniel
Artist: Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
In Paris of the 1860s, Edouard Manet was one of the most controversial artists of his native city, defying the art establishment, then represented by the Salon. For instance, his painting Olympia, a portrait of a Parisian courtesan, scandalized both the art world as well as the public. His style, too, characterized by thick brushwork, bold color, and sometimes sketchy execution was the antithesis of the polished, detailed approach of the academic tradition, with its emphasis on mythological as well as historical themes.
However, during the 1860s decade, Manet also depicted more acceptable subjects ranging from floral still lifes such as his favorite peonies, to popular genre scenes of Spanish dancers and musicians, to horse races. He was known for his portraits, too, including of artistic colleagues like Berthe Morisot and Emile Zola.
I have often wondered about another type of portraiture by Manet. Specifically represented by the work A King Charles Spaniel above which has been part of the National Gallery of Art’s collection for some 50 years. Only about 18 inches by 15 inches, it is presently displayed on the West Wing’s main floor, among other works by Manet and his French contemporaries including Degas and Renoir.
More human than animal, he or she (for the name and sex has never been determined) engages us with those soulful eyes, gentle and unforgettable. As if asking or even beseeching the viewer: for a rub on the head, hopefully behind the ears, possibly a treat, or throwing the black and white toy ball balanced on the red pillow’s edge. Or is the question more profound? About the depth of our love and affection? Will we be as loyal as this small, vulnerable dog who depends upon us for nourishment, care, and happiness?
Manet also skillfully defines the details of the muzzle realistically, particularly the nose. For instance, can we easily imagine touching its surface, perhaps a bit wet and cold. Or is it actually warm and dry? How about the eyebrows, those soft tufts that seem to stand up independently, also enhancing our canine friend’s expression? The face framed as well by rather shaggy ears, perhaps needing to be brushed?
Yet, the chest and hind quarters are composed of a network of brushstrokes, varied in length and direction. Manet’s method of simulating the texture of fur, combined with layers of reddish-brown, white, and gray color. Almost obscuring the forms of the diminutive legs that support the tiny body.
Why A King Charles Spaniel was painted remains a mystery. Was it a commission, done for a client, or a gift to a friend, or just for Manet’s amusement, perhaps a tribute to his own dog? No record of it exists until 1902. Among its owners were Maurice Leclanche, an enthusiastic collector of Impressionist art, the Jewish Elias family who were persecuted by the Nazis during World War II, and Ailsa Mellon Bruce, one of the major donors to the collection of the National Gallery of Art.
GOOGLING ANOTHER MANET, A PRECIOUS BEST FRIEND AND COMPANION:
The Railway, 1873, National Gallery of Art
In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.