Postcard from Madrid: An Appreciation of Velzquez, History’s Greatest Dog Painter

If you travel tovisit Madrid and you make time to meander through themagnificent Museo del Prado (wise move), you'll notice that everything about that place...


If you travel tovisit Madrid and you make time to meander through themagnificent Museo del Prado (wise move), you’ll notice that everything about that place is artful. You could easily spend three whole days in there before scratching the surface of just what an incredible destination for art appreciationthis museumis.

Even the sign outside warning visitors not tobring dogs into the building is artful, likethe hippest, wittiest contemporary sculpture! I’ddefinitely dig havingthat in my house (minus the red lineacross the dog, of course).

But the real items of interest to Dogsters may be foundindoors, in the galleries that showcase the work of Diego Rodrguez de Silva y Velzquez (1599-1660) or just Velzquez to you, me, and his many fans over the centuries and around the world (who have includedsuch famous creative colleagues as Manet, Goya, Sargent, Degas, Renoir, Bacon, and Picasso).

Not only wasthis “painter’s painter”one of history’s greatest artists, Velzquez was also history’s greatest dog painter, a masterful K9 portraitist. It’s fair to say that no painter in the history of art has ever put K9s in such esteemed company.

For proof, look no further than this portrait of King Philip IV; the monarch is depicted with a dog sittingat attentionby his side. The same care lavished on the king’s likeness is evident in the depiction of theroyal huntsman’sfaithful four-footed companion. Both figures represent power and prestige and innate nobility, yet the dog is so much more than just an accessory to the man, or a convenientdevice conveying the king in hunting mode. The dog is a regal figure in his own right, as worthy of the spectator’s lingering gaze asEl Rey Cazadorhimself.

Meanwhile, Velzquez portrays little Prince Baltasar Carlos (above) in the company of not one, but twodog guardians. To El Prncipe’s right is a sweetly sleeping hound, evidently lying down on the job; but to baby Baltasar’s left is a hunting K9 depicted as very much awake and alert aserious sentinel dutifully looking out for his boy.

Now consider Velzquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas (The Ladies in Waiting). This much-admired painting has been called one of the greatest artworks of all time. And there, at the forefront of the composition, is (you guessed it) a dog.

Not just any dog, but a Dogster’s dog:another beautifully, lovinglypainted animal who takes his (or her) rightful place amongst those closest to the Infanta Margarita, the little princess who will ascend to Spain’s royal throne.This pup is a K9 courtier.

Even a royal princess especially a royal princess, a childborn to carrya very grownup burden on hertiny shoulders needs a faithful friend. And Velzquez wants us, his admiring audience,to rest assured that the Infanta hasjust such an allyinher strong, silent, watchful dog.

Interestingly, the Infanta’s dog doesn’t appear to be an aristocratic purebred; rather,s/he resembles an ordinary mutt, which only makes this already compelling painting more fascinating still. Velzquez doesn’t seeminterested in portrayingthis dog as a flashyemblemof wealth and power, but instead as a plain, brown symbol of unconditional love and loyalty.

In his essay, “LAS MENINAS: The World’s Best Painting,” Michael AtleedescribesVelzquez’s earliest portrait of Felipe Prospero (below): “The prince rests his hand on the chair, symbol of royal status and power. In that chair, a sweet dog rests happily.”

Atlee goes onto quotephilosopher and art historian Arthur C. Danto of Columbia University:

“Given the chair in the rigid semiotics of courtly etiquette in Spain, something is being conveyed beyond the fact that spoiled dogs climb into furniture in which courtiers would not dare to sit. Some metaphysical joke? Or the suggestion that dogs hold some rank in nature higher than slaves or even courtiers: All I know is that a dog in a chair is not innocent naturalism.”

Danto is correct; the little dog’s presence makes an already great painting huge, exalting it from the exquisiteto thesublime. Why? Because thatlittle dog in that opulentchair likeevery K9 conjured by Velzquez’s divinely inspired brush is proof that the great artist and his noble subjects were Dogsters.

Reason enough to warrant a visit to the Prado, pronto. Viva Velzquez!

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