Mary and Elizabeth Royall, by John Singleton Copley (MFA, Boston)

Mary and Elizabeth Royall, by John Singleton Copley (MFA, Boston)

On a recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, I was drawn to two delightful American paintings featuring (what else?) dogs. Created 225 years apart, one is a double portrait of two girls (and a dog) by the Neoclassical master John Singleton Copley; the other is also a double portrait (of the artist’s wife and their dog) by Scott Prior, a contemporary photo realist painter from Northampton.

Copley’s Mary and Elizabeth Royall (c. 1758, oil, 57-3/8’ x 48-1/8”) pictures the beautiful young daughters of a wealthy colonial merchant, Isaac Royall, Jr. The painting’s formal composition includes an elfin Cavalier King Charles spaniel nestled in the billowing folds of Elizabeth’s silk dress. The dog gazes up with the puppy-eyed devotion synonymous with the breed. Or, perhaps his plaintive expression beseeches the girl: “Please, get rid of the itchy flower garland around my neck!”

Charles II Prince of Wales, by Justus van Egmont (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Charles II Prince of Wales, by Justus van Egmont (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Both as a family pet and a painterly prop, the King Charles spaniel symbolizes the aptly named Royall family’s Tory sympathies and aristocratic status in the British colonies. The girls’ father and grandfather (Isaac, Sr.) prospered off rum running and slave trading in Antigua before settling in Medford in the early 1730s. The family’s American roots ultimately proved shallow and opportunistic, and with the Revolution brewing, they fled to England in 1775 and never returned. Ten Hills Farm, their 500-acre estate in Medford on which two dozen slaves worked, was confiscated by colonial militia.

As a portraitist, Copley himself was something of a spaniel to the aristocracy on both sides of the Atlantic, and though his name remains closely associated with Boston, it bears remembering that he, too, left America just before the Revolution, spending his final four decades in Europe. He died in London in 1815.

The Isaac Royall House in Medford, MA

The Isaac Royall House in Medford, MA

Beyond Copley’s masterful portrait of the Royall daughters in the MFA, the family’s tainted legacy is well preserved in the Boston area. In Medford, the Isaac Royall House is on the National Register of Historic Places and is significant for having the only surviving slave quarters in New England, while in Cambridge, Harvard Law School owes its founding to a bequest from Isaac Royall. The prestigious Royall Chair at HLS is today occupied by a noted feminist legal scholar, Janet Halley, whose writing on family law, discrimination and the regulation of sexuality is evidence of how far American women have come since the Royall girls and their dog sat for Copley some 250 years ago.

Nanny and Rose, by Scott Prior (MFA, Boston)

Nanny and Rose, by Scott Prior (MFA, Boston)

As a contemporary artist working in a traditional, representational medium, Scott Prior has big shoes to fill as a potential successor to Copley, and his Nanny and Rose (1983, oil, 67-3/4” x 59-1/2”) hangs somewhat awkwardly in the arcade just outside the M.F.A.’s new contemporary art galleries, where realism is apparently as unwelcome as real dogs. The painting’s title gives equal billing to its two subjects, Prior’s wife (Nanny) and their Golden Retriever (Rose), who are pictured together enjoying the quiet, yet public, intimacy of breakfast on the family’s screened front porch.

No mere lap-dog accessory or status symbol, the supine Rose grounds the composition with her calm dignity, her gaze outside the frame conveying a streak of canine independence that contrasts with Nanny’s direct look toward the viewer. In her plaid bathrobe and thick socks, her foot resting casually on the dog’s rear and her hair still tousled from sleep, Nanny appears drab next to her dog, whose lustrous Breck girl coat reflects the light and pulls the viewer’s eye away from the woman. Copley and the Royall sisters might shake their heads in wonder at how dogs have risen to such primacy in our lives – that is, if they could overcome their shock that a respectable woman would agree to sit for a portrait in her dressing gown!

A Golden Retriever from Cambridge named Mango

A Golden Retriever from Cambridge named Mango

With its sunny good looks, natural athleticism and easy-going temperament, the Golden Retriever is the quintessential All-American dog, though the breed originated in Scotland. Year in and year out, the Golden remains among the top 5 most popular dog breeds in the U.S., and while the Cavalier King Charles is gaining popularity, it has not yet cracked the top 20. In the U.K., both breeds are in the top 10, but the Cav just edges out the Golden in popularity (#6 vs. #7 in 2006).

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