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All Dogs Go to the Art Institute

Nearly 200 artworks at the Art Institute of Chicago have the word “dog” in the title, from Ancient to Contemporary, whether Baroque jewelry or Post-Impressionist paintings. Even more sneak into the backgrounds and margins of textiles, prints, and drawings. How did so many canines make it through the museum’s doors unnoticed? More importantly, how can you find them? The solution to this canine conundrum may be found through June 23 in the interactive installation, a rotation of our works on paper, in corridor Gallery 213a: Spot the Dog: Paw Prints! Dogs of all shapes and sizes have appeared in artworks over the centuries. While images of dogs on paper permeate the Art Institute’s collection of every era, this installation capitalizes on the fact that dogs were absolutely everywhere in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century.

The show coincides with the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (February 11-12) in New York City, which will open with a whopping 3,200 already prize-winning entrants this year. But many of the dogs on display here at the Art Institute aren’t exactly purebreds. Nor are they necessarily well behaved, whether they roughhouse, mark their territory in unfortunate places, spread fleas, or simply crash solemn occasions or locations, such as the church in Emanuel de Witte’s painting in Gallery 213. Indeed, depictions of canines sometimes embodied them with very nearly human passions. William Shakespeare’s immortal line from his Julius Caesar, “Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war,” suggests that these noble beasts were literally and figuratively important for military tactics. A more explicit take on the other favorite activity of man- (or dog-kind) can be found juxtaposed with war here in a 17th-century Italian print from a book of animals battling at the Harvard Art Museums. While this frank depiction shows dogs in a relatively naturalistic manner, through the eighteenth century, painted and printed tavern scenes and erotica often included marginal images of dogs mimicking their owners’ even more immodest behavior. As Christopher Guest’s Best in Show mockumentary riotously demonstrated, it was the competitive and prestige-hungry owners who were usually at fault for the wild ways of their canine companions.

Not tired of looking for Man’s Best Friend? Take the mini tour to see more covert canines in other media throughout the museum. While the Anubis Jackal is no longer on view in Gallery 154a, pay a visit to the Edwin Landseer Wounded Stag and Dog in Gallery 231 instead!

On March 29 at 2pm I’ll give a half-hour Express Talk on this installation that’s open to the public, so you too can Spot the Dog and ask questions!

Image Credit: Wenceslaus Hollar, after Adriaen Jacobz Matham. A Poodle, 1649. Gift of James Wells.