17 March 2008

Dog Portraitist

Christine Merrill, 44, is the doyenne of dog portraitists. She's painted, among other trophy-laden canines, Ch. Salilyn's Condor, known familiarly as Robert, the English springer spaniel that was the big winner at the 1993 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Over an almost 25-year career, she has captured the likenesses of Oprah Winfrey's cocker spaniels, the late fashion designer Geoffrey Beene's dachshunds, CBS newsman Bob Schieffer's beagle, the late Malcolm Forbes's Norfolk terrier and bull mastiff, George and Barbara Bush's spaniel Millie, as well as the canines owned by some of Hollywood's top dogs.

Mostly, her subjects are family dogs rather than show dogs. Mostly, they're purebreds. "But I've also done mixed breeds, which I love to do because they're originals. They're like designer dogs," she said. And mostly they're in the prime of their lives -- though, admittedly, a few of them have had one paw in the grave. "Sometimes when I paint an old dog the family has already bought a new puppy," said Ms. Merrill, whose voice has a girlish, breathless cast and whose talk is often punctuated by giggles and broad gestures. "That's kind of bittersweet, but it says life goes on."

Holding a pose is out of the question with Ms. Merrill's particular clientele. Instead, she creates her oil paintings by referring to photographs and by making home visits to observe beagles, bichons and Bedlingtons in their natural surroundings. She's watched them sleep and eat, taken them for walks, even swum with them in the family pool. While she tends to be treated like visiting royalty -- clients often provide a first-class plane ticket -- every so often a subject revolts. "You have to give them some space," said Ms. Merrill, a sedulous student of self-styled Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan. "I've only been nipped once." The offender: one of a pair of Tibetan terriers. "I reached down to pet the little one too soon, and his older sister bit my hand but didn't draw blood. I took notes on that. Now, I start by talking to the owner and let the dog come up and sniff me."

"If it's gotten to the point where an owner wants a portrait, that dog must be special," she said. "I have to try to see him the way the owner sees him."

The younger daughter of a newspaper editor and an artist, Ms. Merrill showed her form early. At the age of 5, she drew a very respectable likeness of Snoopy that hangs on a wall in her studio. "My mother was a portrait painter. I would watch her subjects come in," recalled Ms. Merrill of a group that included Tricia Nixon and the wife of then-Vice President Spiro Agnew. "Children and ladies and men with their arms folded. She taught me how to get a likeness. She said that was more important than technique. Not that technique wasn't important," she added hastily.

Indeed, when model-turned-novelist Jane Hitchcock came to Ms. Merrill's studio to pick up a portrait of her West Highland terrier, "there were three other Westie portraits there," recalled Ms. Hitchcock. "But I knew exactly which was mine, because Christine paints dogs like a great portrait painter paints faces." But some clients have asked Ms. Merrill to throttle back on the exact likeness thing and paint a dog in his glory -- a little less gray in the muzzle, perhaps, a little less sag in the belly. "Usually, though, owners love them just the way they are."

Ms. Merrill employs the compositional references and backgrounds (generally exteriors colored rich green and blue) of classic 18th- and 19th-century animal portraits. Her meticulous brushwork and keen sense of detail have frequently invited comparison to the oeuvre of British artist George Stubbs. "My style, she says, "suits people who have antique furniture and Oriental rugs and heavy curtains."

[Source: Wall Street Journal Online, Image: Christine Merrill]