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Portraits of Tom: The Life of a 19th Century French Supermodel.

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

Antique French Dog painting of Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Antique dog portrait
"Tom" by Théodore Levigne (1848-1912) Oil on panel, 6 x 4.5 inches, circa 1880

Hi again and welcome back.

When I mentioned that I'd be posting occasionally, I didn't predict that it would be a solid two and a half years between posts. At any rate, I suppose that's still posting occasionally, certainly in geological time. I'm still pretty certain my musings are most likely only riveting and insightful to me.

So seriously, what's up with Tom?

With some pretty good luck and very good timing, this past Spring we were able to acquire a painting from France by Théodore Levigne (1848-1912) which depicted a Staffordshire Bull Terrier whose collar tag identifies him as “Tom.” We were instantly smitten with Tom with his rather aloof and disinterested glance at anything other than us. The deep, nearly Lapis blue of the background was so attractive that, no surprise, Tom was sold immediately, within just a few days of getting him. But damn, I still miss that dog.

More good fortune arrived in the Fall when, again in France, we found yet another, incredibly similar painting of our good friend Tom. Even more surprising, Tom now had a friend whom we now affectionately refer to as “Patsy.” Strangely though, this pair of paintings was created by another artist, Louis Léger Chardin (1833-1918). We were successful in adopting both Tom and Patsy which we’re currently offering for sale, as you may have already noticed.

Based on the small size and nearly identical execution of the original Lapis Tom and comparing it to the newer Tom, it's pretty obvious that they're the same dog. Then, being the curious sort, I start doing some deep-dive art-sleuthing and I was able to find several other interesting examples one of which was painted by Jules Chardigny (1842-1892) and was published in the book Dog Painting: The European Breeds (William Secord, 2000, p. 331, plate 482).

Tom by Jules Chardigny (1849-1892) Oil on panel, 6.5 x 3.75 inches Circa 1880

Though the sizes range from about 6 ½ x 3 ½ to 9 x 7 inches they all share a consistently small format size, and each example was painted as oil on panel rather than oil on canvas. Each of the 3 portrait examples we’ve owned up to that point have seemed to be roughly contemporaneous with one another to right around 1880. The other similar examples that have been discovered would seem to be from that same period as well.

Again, based on the fairly small size, portrayal of doggy indifference, in regards to the Tom portraits, and a striking alertness in Patsy's case, all pictures have the same portraiture format with very similar and rather plain backgrounds. Essentially, all these portraits of Tom and Patsy are nearly identical.

Since all the other examples are not as complete as the initial Lapis Tom, with his more fully realized background, it’s an open question to whether this is the earliest, if not the original example. Or, if you will, is the Lapis Tom the model for the other potentially later examples?

In the midst of my research Olympics, I discovered there were still more examples of Patsy. I wasn’t able to find any portraits painted by Théodore Levigne; all the other representations were painted by Louis Léger Chardin or Jules Chardigny.

As our good luck continued -pretty strange, right?- we were able to acquire another painting of Patsy, this one by Jules Chardigny, which can also be found elsewhere on our website.

Ultimately while doing my super important research, I came across four versions of Tom and five versions of Patsy. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other versions of Tom or Patsy floating around out there. I wouldn’t even be surprised if there were other examples painted by other painters besides Chardin and Chardigny.

Another interesting little morsel is that all the painters were roughly contemporaneous with one another having lived in France to around the turn of the century, or if you prefer, Fin de Siècle. This factoid, other than wondering if it’s just coincidental, or something more, may not be knowable. However, by revisiting at least some of those nearly identical depictions of Tom and Patsy paintings, it does seem reasonable to ponder if those painters were somehow associated.

My first hypothesis was to infer that since the two dogs we're discussing are evidently always the same two dogs, they may have been painted at around the same time. Furthermore, that some of them are so similar, notably, in this case, the pictures of Tom and Patsy painted by Louis Léger Chardin and Jules Chardigny, that they must have been painted together or at roughly the same time. That some of other portraits by Chardin and Chardigny are equally similar to the aforementioned pair, were they painted at the same time? When were they painted and what were the circumstances? Let's not overlook the Lapis Tom by Théodore Levigne either in this discussion and how that fits into the narrative story of "A Tale of Two Painted Dogs."

Initially, I guessed that Tom, and then Tom and Patsy, were owned by one of the painters or were possibly the dogs were owned by another painter or maybe even a mutual friend. Still another possibility is that the three painters were all studying under the same painter/mentor who owned Tom and Patsy. Painting the dogs may have been an "assignment," if you will.

With complete logic, of course, I created a tableau where these painters were all gathered together in a darkened salon, debating the merits of Friedrich Nietzsche, with their ferociously, nonstop smoking filling the air, all while sipping absinthe cocktails and painting Tom and Patsy. So yes, in my telling at least one of the iterations of Tom and Patsy were literally painted by numerous painters at the same place, side-by side, at the same time. Sounds pretty reasonable. Right?

So, we’re still left wondering what’s the deal with Tom and what made him so fabulous? Were he and Patsy the Fabio and Christy Turlington of 80’s France? That’s 1880’s, France. Perhaps they were newsworthy icons of the day along the lines of the famous giraffe, Zarafa, gifted from Egyptian Mehmet Ali Pasha to King Charles X of France in 1827?

Zarafa took up residence at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris becoming an utter sensation. She was viewed by hundreds of thousands, she was the feature of numerous articles as well as a story written by Honoré de Balzac. Zarafa was quite the viral sensation back in the day.

Zarafa, the giraffe at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, 1820s.

Since this was the time before Netflix and video games, and people found their entertainment in shows, exhibitions, fairs, circuses and the like, perhaps Tom and Patsy were to be found in that milieu.

Whatever the case may have been, Tom and Patsy were clearly hot commodities. This can be borne out by the discovery (i.e. Super Important Research) of another example of Patsy, this time viewed in profile. Even more interesting is that I found that these design motifs could be found in numerous other depictions of dogs from that time. This begs another question specifically towards Tom: which came first, the portrayal of amusingly distracted dogs or the portrait of our good friend Tom?

Profile view of Patsy by Jules Chardigny

While whatever ideas I came up with seem to be insufficient in explaining the history of Tom and Patsy, the questions and discoveries continue. Finally, I came across a portrait of Cesar who is Italian and dates to the early years of the 20th century.

Portrait of Cesar, after Tom, Italian (Detail) Oil on canvas, circa 1910

With Cesar, once again we see the same sideways glance to the left. However, in this case, Cesar’s disposition appears to be a convenient device in which to regard the dogs to his left. This presentation seems to be referencing some sort of trope related to the publications of differing newspapers or even possibly nationalistic competition.

Whatever the case may be, Tom was clearly a known entity so much, so we see his likeness being reappropriated and recycled decades later. So clearly, he was a Canine of Consequence. Perhaps some day I’ll know more of the story.

Whatever the case may be, we sure do like those paintings of Tom and Patsy.

And now, here are two more pictures of our super cute dogs!

-Scott Gordon

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