Paw-sitively picture perfect

Published 1:16 am Sunday, February 17, 2008

The best housewarming gift new Haverhill, Mass., residents Ian and Kathy Hanson got last month was one they commissioned themselves: a painted portrait of their beloved “babies,” Mr. Bojangles and Penny.

Yes, they’re cats.

“When we bought the house, we really had nothing on the walls. So we thought a portrait of our two cats that I’ve had for eight years would be great,” Kathy Hanson said.

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“They’re our babies and this is something fun that will always preserve their memory. They’re both a part of us and we did this as a gift for each other.”

In a world where one form of digital media replaces the next faster than paint can dry, some pet lovers are turning back to a more permanent medium to display affection for their furry friends.

Local artists say pet portraits, which typically cost between $100 and $500, have become the latest in a long line of pet indulgences during the past five years. A portrait solidifies an animal’s family-member status, immortalizing him or her even after death.

“I think having your own portrait done feels for a lot of people like an egotistical indulgence. But to have a portrait of someone they love, whether they have two or four legs, is a heart-warming treasure,” said Gloucester, Mass., artist Lynn Holoway, who has painted more than 100 animal portraits.

Sketches and drawings of animals date back centuries upon centuries, but pet portraiture first flourished during the Victorian age of the 1800s. Barbara McNab, director of the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog Museum in St. Louis, says several painters of that era are now favorites among animal-loving art collectors, including Maud Earl, known for capturing the essence of expression; Arthur Wardle, known for his work with terriers; and Sir Henry Edwin Landseer, known as a favorite of Queen Victoria.

“Queen Victoria commissioned the best painters to capture the images of her dogs | of all her animals, actually. And then it became the thing to do. Everyone started commissioning pet portraits,” McNab said.

“The trend crossed the Atlantic to America in the very early 1900s. I would say it remained popular through the ’20s and ’30s, and then you did see a dip in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s. By the 1970s, people started to rediscover dog art. And in the 1980s and ’90s, it was the hottest thing going.”

A portrait of her now 16-month-old Vizsla, Lucy, was Andover, Mass., resident Christine Voss’ favorite Christmas 2006 present. Because Lucy was born with a hole in her heart, veterinarians at Riverside Veterinary Clinic in Haverhill expected her to die young. Lucy’s family decided they couldn’t emotionally or financially take on the responsibility of caring for such a sick puppy. Voss was one of three clinic employees who offered to act as hospice for the dog.

“Last year, we didn’t even know if Lucy would live to Christmastime,” Voss said. “She’s such a special dog — she’s such a gift to us.”

Lucy’s portrait was a complete surprise for Voss.

“As I opened up the present, I could see it was a picture and some of Lucy’s face was peering through,” Voss said. “Tears started to well up in my eyes.

“The painting is spectacular — this is one beautiful puppy. She has her first collar on in the picture, which has since been torn up and chewed up. I was speechless. I couldn’t believe it.”

The portrait by Andover artist Zsuzsanna Taylor Donnell also represents a special period of time for Voss and her fiance, Andover chiropractor James Peck. Within six weeks of their first date, Peck began adjusting and conditioning Lucy, hoping to improve her health. The frequent interaction helped speed up the couple’s courtship.

“When Jim and I went on our first date, I knew he was going to be the man I marry. It has been a wonderful relationship,” Voss said. “Lucy was a big part of our story because she brought Jim and I together in a way. We would talk during hour-long walks with Lucy every day, which was a big part of how we came to realize how similar our views of life and love are. Lucy is very special to us.”

The couple have permanently assumed ownership of Lucy, who is in good health these days. They also own a total of three pet portraits by Donnell, and expect to commission at least one more of their beagle, Cody.

And while the Hansons are still debating how they want to decorate their new house, their one and only piece of artwork puts a smile on their faces every time they walk by.

“It’s unbelievable | it’s something to really treasure,” Hanson said of their portrait of Mr. Bojangles and Penny. “An animal is such a part of the family | this is such a loving gift to give yourself. That’s something you’ll have forever, and absolutely beats having a photograph.”

Emily Young writes for The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, Mass.