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Hangdog expressions and haunted royal hounds

4 June 2023

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Ever since Rakewell swooned through ‘Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney’ at the Wallace Collection, only to be disappointed that the curators weren’t given a longer leash, your correspondent has been craving more canines on canvas. Imagine our delight, then, when we set eyes on the late 18th-century portrait of a pup, believed to be Pompon, Marie Antoinette’s favourite pet, which sold for $279,400 – nearly 56 times its low estimate – at Sotheby’s this week.

Never mind that there’s little proof the portrait has anything to do with the French queen; the artist, Jacques Barthélémy Delamarre, painted miscellaneous mutts, rabbits and cats across a largely undistinguished career. The work’s title, Portrait of a Poodle, is patently inaccurate. Whatever this creature’s lineage (a löwchen, perhaps?), it certainly does not belong to the titular breed. No: what really hits home is the sheer horror staring out from the creature’s surprisingly intelligent eyes, fringed by ludicrous locks. If ever there was a cautionary tale about human-to-animal reincarnation, this haunted hound is it.

Delamarre painted several versions of this pooch in various states of coiffure. Perhaps the tenuous Marie Antoinette connection comes, in part, from similarities between this doggy hairdo and the queen’s own elaborate curls. For those looking for more canine couture, we’ve called a couple more companions to heel.

Like Pompon, this Havanese dog painted by Jean-Jacques Bachelier has been groomed to be naked from the waist down – and is ornamented with a pink bow, adding insult to injury. One can only hope that the scattered slippers, etc., are signs of rebellious behaviour in the face of such affront to canine dignity.

Dog of the Havana Breed (1768), Jean-Jacques Bachelier. The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

In this fluidly-painted Fragonard, a ribbon is used both as a fashionable frippery and a lead – neither of which appears to please this dog, who, amid the pastel-hued froth, has a distinctly demonic glint in his eye.

Marie Emilie Coignet de Courson (1716–1806) with a Dog (c. 1769), Jean Honoré Fragonard. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.