Waylaid by an Imperfect Dog
A side-trip to a Wyeth exhibit at the Denver Museum of Art has author and award-winning columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson pondering the artistry of dogs - and their make-up.
Now that’s effective public relations. What dog person in her right mind — or not – wouldn’t go check it out?
The Lab might have been my late Mabel, except for the eye graffiti. I had to find out what that circle was about. It illustrated that axiom about the imperfect being more beseeching than the perfect. It’s why Lucinda Williams’s music is more interesting than Olivia Newton John’s, for example. The latter is a groomed poodle, the former a redbone hound.
The Wyeths were dog people, for certain, and the father, Andrew, famously and frequently painted a yellow dog sleeping on the master bed. You’ve seen it, I’m sure. Everyone who ever has owned a yellow Lab, including me, has a print of “Master Bedroom” hanging above her bed. The painting is realistic except for the omission of mud tracks across the bedspread.
Both Wyeths painted critters other than dogs, of course, including cats, cows, pigs and sea gulls. Lots and lots of gulls.
Jamie, in fact, used the natural poses of sea gulls in seven separate paintings to illustrate the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed — and those other four I can’t remember here at Carnival time.
Who knew sea gulls were so human? Maybe a local painter should try it with least terns.
AWOL at the museum, I equipped myself with one of those self-guiding telephone contraptions that allowed the Wyeths to whisper in my ear as I roamed and admired. Jamie himself explained about Kleberg’s distinctive eye.
The dog wandered too close to the easel, and impulsively the artist painted the circle around Kleberg’s left eye. I would read later that Jamie Wyeth was a big fan of “The Little Rascals,” which starred a pit bull with the same marking. The first Petey had such a circle naturally, completed with dye. The second Petey’s eye was encircled by Hollywood makeup artist Max Factor. Who knew?
When the artist’s friends began remarking on the strange marking, Wyeth for several months kept playing Mother Nature — or Max Factor. One of the studies of the defaced dog recently sold for a quarter of a million.
Hooray for whimsy.
Both Wyeths preferred to stay close to home to paint, exploring the same subjects and neighbors again and again, finding fresh aspects to the familiar.
“It has to be more than just a scene and a piece of geography,” Jamie Wyeth said. “There has to be some emotion involved, or else it’s just rubbish.”
No rubbish at this exhibit. No drive-by sketches or painting from photographs. The Wyeths became agonizingly familiar with their subjects, obsessing on the details that make the paintings memorable.
And no subjects kept them busier than did their critters, domestic or un-.
I liked best what Jamie Wyeth said about painting animals, both on the canvas and, in Kleberg’s case, on the flesh.
“To me they are just individuals I know.”
I went back to the book conference with something to say about my book and its canine characters. I could now sound lofty by quoting a famous artist: “As Jamie Wyeth has said, ‘To me they are just individuals I know.’”
I never thought to paint black circles around Mabel’s beautiful eyes, which already were outlined like Cleopatra’s. But once I hired a really sloppy house painter who managed to get gray paint over the shrubbery and all three of my dogs.
It’s as close as they came to fame.
Rheta's new book: The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge - a Memoir in Dog Years