Maud Earl at the Museum of the Dog
When I first visited the AKC Museum of the Dog a few years ago, I did what everyone else probably does: I checked out the interactive displays on the first floor (click here to learn what type of dog I most resemble!) and then I worked my way up the stairs, admiring the artwork from the permanent collection.
When I got to the top floor some works displayed in glass cabinets caught my eye: illustrations by an artist named Maud Earl.
I’d seen oil paintings by Earl on the lower floors of the museum. They were similar to pet portraits by other artists from the 1800s and early 1900s: more or less static representations of dogs in pretty, bucolic settings or stately manors.
These prints, however, really surprised me. I’m going to dip into some purple prose here, but the dogs in these works seemed to jump off the page. They had an immediacy and energy I hadn’t seen in any of the paintings from the same era.
In the image below, you can almost feel the Foxhounds racing off into a field during a hunt.
I made a mental note to learn more about the artist, but then a pandemic happened and I never really followed up.
Fast forward to late 2022 and I learned that the museum had acquired a painting called White Light (No. 2), a canvas MOD curator Alan Fausel describes as a “tremendous work by Maud Earl [that had] been essentially unknown and unseen by the public for a century.”
Unseen for one hundred years!? That certainly sounded mysterious, so I decided to finally learn more about this artist.
Who was Maud Earl?
Maud Earl was born in 1863 in London. William Secord, of the William Secord Gallery in Manhattan wrote: “The Earls came from a long line of Worcestershire and Gloucestershire sporting families. Both her father George and her less well-known uncle Thomas were noted sporting artists. Her half-brother, Percy, was also an artist who completed many commissions of horses and pure bred dogs.”
George Earl was Maud’s first teacher. He insisted she learn about anatomy by drawing dogs, horses, and human skeletons, giving her the skills to set herself apart from other pet portraitists of the time.
Earl’s works were displayed at the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists, and the Paris Salon. Her clients included prominent dog-fanciers, notable sportsmen, and royalty: Queen Victoria herself commissioned Earl to paint one of her dogs.
Earl leveraged her talent, her affinity for dogs, her knowledge of canine anatomy, and her deep contacts in the dog sporting world into a very successful career; a significant achievement for a woman in the 19th century.
I couldn’t find a lot written about her online, but I think Maud Earl’s success is reflected in her biography on the William Secord Gallery website. Secord devotes nearly 2,000 words to her on his site. He affords her father, George — known for painting one of the most famous works of the canine world at the time, Field Trial at Bala, North Wales — with 600 words. Earl’s half-bother Percy? He rates a paltry twenty-two words.
New York City
At the beginning of the First World War, Earl abandoned London and emigrated to New York City.
Secord writes: “It seems curious that an artist so successful in England would suddenly move to America, but the onset of World War I had forever changed the world that she had known and loved. Her work had always been well received in America, and in her words, ‘Then came the war, and that finished everything. Before America came into the struggle, I came, here, to New York.'”
Fausel adds: “I am not sure what exactly happened with Maud in 1914. I have a feeling that she had ‘peaked’ in England and a combination of the War and Post-Edwardian England certainly influenced her decision. Before the war, England was quite Idyllic, at least for the upper classes. The war was positively crushing to that world. Think Downton Abbey. I also suspect there may have been a loss of relationships both personal and professional that could have influenced her decision to embark on a new life rather than stick it out.”
In the United States, she kept a hand in the dog world — the painting below is of Nunsoe, a Standard Poodle who won Best-in-Show at Westminster in 1935 — but as Fausel says, Earl did not have the network she once dominated in England.
Earl’s father had died in 1908 and a long-term, close relationship with Lillian Smythe, an etcher and Pekingese enthusiast, appeared to have waned. Fausel says it’s not known if these two developments influenced her decision to leave England, but her move was permanent. Many artists who fled Europe during the war returned once it ended. Earl did not. She stayed in New York, living and painting at the Volney Apartments on the Upper East Side. She died in 1943 and is buried in Tarrytown.
It was in New York where she explored other styles of painting and different subjects for her art.
Maud Earl’s Style
Maud Earl’s art encompassed three, maybe four, different styles. From the 1880s to around 1900 she rendered her paintings in a rich, naturalistic style: fully realized images of dogs with rich landscapes or interior settings.
Around the turn of the century her pet portraits became looser and sketchier. The dogs were still rendered in full, but the backgrounds started to become less well-realized. This is the period of her career I find myself most drawn to. To me these works are more modern than those favored by Victorians at the end of the 19th century.
The images I saw on my first visit to the MOD came from this time.
In some works from this period the backgrounds become mere suggestions, as you can see in the image below from 1910. This change in style allowed Earl to reach a larger audience (and make more money!) The paintings with minimal backgrounds were easily made into prints using a process called photogravure.
It involves using a photograph or negative to etch an image into a copper plate with light and chemicals. The image can then be printed traditionally with ink on paper. The lack of a fully realized background in a painting makes it easy to create a clean print. Below you’ll see the MOD’s original painting A Feast of Fat Things from 1903 on the left. On the right you will see the photogravure that was created from the painting.
You can imagine how “muddy” the image on the right might be if the original painting had a busy background.
While Earl most likely sold the paintings to the dogs’ owners, she also included photogravures of the Fat Things in a limited edition portfolio called Terriers and Toys. Five hundred copies of this portfolio were published. In this way she was able to reach a much wider audience with her illustrations.
Fausel says there are two such portfolios “in the museum’s collection [which] together represent an extraordinary record of pure bred dogs around the turn of the century.”
After she moved to the United States during World War I, Earl developed what she called her “Oriental” or “Chinese” style (though the works are better described as having their inspiration in Japanese painting styles.) She said that dogs only featured in these works incidentally, as you can see below.
Yet even though she worked in this Asian-inspired style of painting, she never strayed completely from her roots as a pet portraitist. During the 1920s and 1930s she still painted fully realized portraits like the painting of the Poodle Nunsoe, seen earlier, and this portrait of another Westminster champion, a Cocker Spaniel from the 1920s, seen below.
And to circle back to the mystery of why White Light (No. 2) hadn’t been seen in public for a century? Not so mysterious after all. It was housed in a private home for all that time and was only recently auctioned off.
But now we have another, real, mystery; if the painting is number two in a series, where is White Light (No. 1)?
To learn why White Light (No. 2) is such an important part of Earl’s body of work, read Alan Fausel’s essay from the fall edition of the Museum of the Dog’s newsletter.
Visiting the Museum of the Dog
This is all to say, I think you should visit the Museum of the Dog to see the work of Maud Earl (and others, of course!) Below you’ll note that White Light (No. 2) is prominently on display on the ground floor of the museum. I urge you to make sure you get to the top floor to see the photogravures I enjoyed so many years ago.
Click here to plan your trip to the museum.
Epilogue: The Volney
As mentioned earlier, Maud Earl live in the Volney Hotel on East 74th Street in Manhattan. The Volney was one of many buildings originally meant for single women of means in New York City. (The Barbizon Hotel, once home to Grace Kelly, Peggy Cass, Candice Bergen, and Liza Minelli is probably the most famous.)
Writer and member of the Algonquin “Round Table,” Dorothy Parker was one of the most famous residents of the Volney.
As the Dorothy Parker Society website notes: “In the Volney, Dorothy was living with a large number of elderly women — and more than three dozen dogs in the building — which would be fodder for her unsuccessful 1953 play, The Ladies of the Corridor.”
While Parker and Earl did not live there are the same time, it is not hard to imagine Earl as an elderly lady living with, and painting dogs n the Volney. Maybe there’s a character like her in the play.