In Praise of animal painters, in this case of a dog painter, Kimberly Merrill
by Gerald M. Ackerman

Few know–I really want to write “Nobody knows”—how difficult it is to paint a dog.  Like children, animals are hard to draw, paint, or photograph:  they neither stand nor sit still, and their tails can twitch while they are sleeping.

Animal painters were not always held in high respect.  It was the great French painter, Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899), who made people reappraise animal painting. During the age of Realism—the second half of the nineteenth century—art lovers and the cognoscenti accepted her work for being accurate, technically-superb, well-composed, and without any rhetoric of depiction.  She could paint all animals—sheep, rabbits and goats to eagles, cattle and horses—with respect, without ever being sentimental or exaggerated, or using formulae, either conventional or personal.  She could depict a dozen sheep in a fold, and every one would be different. And when she dramatized, it was in recognition of the essential wildness of animals, not a hoary cliché.  Rosa Bonheur‘s love of animals superseded any sentimental or anthropomorphic impulses.  This is difficult to communicate without a sure technique and an always alert mind.   Kimberly Merrill follows in Bonheur’s footsteps, and no doubt sees her as an inspiration.

Another inspiration was probably her relationship with her own pet, Lilly, a Shiba Inu. She is as non-obsequious and independent as a cat, and a considerably more energetic.  Even so, the intensity and the beauty of the animal foster admiration and affection while not begging for it.  Resistant to command and cuddling, the Shiba Inu has an independent life of its own, independent of its relationship with its human caretakers. Merrill’s painting of Lily, snooping in the woods, assessing scents whose meanings we cannot guess, is almost swallowed up in the lights and colors of the woods.  The painter shows us where the animal really is at home, and it’s not in our lap. A dog may be more comfortable in our laps, but outdoors is where it has given up being a lap dog to be a self-sufficient animal.  It’s not a secret life, but rather an ignored one.

Dogs express their feelings and their attitudes with more than their faces; they have a responsive anatomy, muscular and skeletal structures that react when their interest changes, when they walk, and when they investigate something new.  The movement goes through their whole body—this is a trait of four-legged mammals whose walking is a continual maintenance of the center of balance.  You can see all this internal adjustment of posture in Chiquita: head raised in apprehension, forelegs tense in support, and the bodily weight falling into the haunches.

To get to the character of the animal, a good painter of dogs almost has to ignore or eliminate the accommodating interactions of dogs with humans—dogs so much want to please us that they quickly change and adapt to our wishes and feelings.  More than figure painters, who can tell their models how to pose, or how to resume a broken pose, animal painters (like baby painters) often have to resort to photography. But photos are treacherous if the artist doesn’t have the experience to interpret them, or if the artist can’t intuit the information that the photo doesn’t catch. For everything is seen still in a photograph, while in life every part of a dog is in movement whether sitting or running –that is the nature of four-legged animals, and that’s what the dog-painter wants to record.

So praise be to Kimberly Merrill for bringing to the Lora Schlesinger Gallery a kennel of independent, differentiated dogs painted without any imposed maniera, neither anthropomorphized, nor any cuter than they were bred to be.  Some of her animals are alert to some event, others lost in a moment of non-reaction, inanimate, thinking about nothing but passing the time until their attention is aroused.  Surely we love them for their innate affection, but we can also admire them for their personal independence, the handsomeness of their heads, the staunchness of their stand, the patterns of their pelt, and the strength of their backs:  all traits that Merrill has learned to see and present to us with admirable accuracy and lack of fussiness.  Her dog-portraits—parallel to portraits of human beings—reveal to the attentive eye the difference between them and us by their natural, unself-conscious, un-posed dignity, as in Lenny.