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"Two Kittens and a Frog"
John Dolph (New York/Ohio 1835-1903)
Oil Painting on Academy Board
Signed l.l "J Dolph"
13 x 9-1/4 inches (18-1/2 x 24 w/frame)

John Henry Dolph was a versatile and talented painter who became a celebrated artist and the foremost American painter of cats and dogs, or most often, kittens and puppies. His best cat paintings exhibit a keen understanding of the subject matter, appear very naturalistic and convey the artist’s genuine affection for his models.

Dolph left his home in Fort Ann, New York at 14 after the death of his mother. To support himself he began working as a painter of decorations on coaches and carriages. He eventually made his way to Cleveland where he studied with Allen Smith, a prominent portrait painter. This training prepared him for a career in portraiture which he pursued later in Detroit. From there he moved to New York City in 1865 and, as was common with artists of the time, Dolph went to Europe to further his studies and hone his skills. In Antwerp he studied with the noted animal painter Louis Van Kuyek who tutored Dolph in his specialty of animal painting and horses in particular. He also spent time in Paris before returning to America and again settled in New York in 1872.

Following his return to America he broadened his range and was first recognized for his Hudson River School landscapes, domestic genre scenes and still lifes which unfortunately did not sell well. He moved on to concentrate on farmyard genre scenes, animal life, medieval genre scenes and architectural studies. Eventually he became bored and began to paint cats and kittens. These paintings proved to be very popular and sold well. Having found his niche, Dolph concentrated on realistic, playful paintings of cats and dogs. These subjects were so well-liked that he finally devoted himself from 1875 on exclusively to painting only those.

It was common that subtle bits of humor were woven into these paintings. As one observer of an early kitten painting described in an article from Photo-Beacon Magazine: “He had one picture of a kitten lying on a table and a lighted cigarette in front of it. I wish you could see the expression on that kitten – surprise, curiosity, anxiety and a little bit of fighting; all the human passions expressed in the face of the kitten.” Eventually he would be described as the "leading cat painter in America" by the periodical The Quarterly Illustrator in the September 1894 issue.

This turning point in his career was recounted in the same 1898 issue of the Photo-Beacon when Dolph explained that one day the landlord came looking for the rent and he had no money to pay him. The artist went to a local auctioneer, asking him if he could sell some sketches for him. The auctioneer agreed, telling him to bring down whatever he had. As an afterthought, Dolph thought to bring along a pretty little frame that had cost him about $15. Dolph: “I thought - that frame will bring something, but I have nothing to fill it. A cat came tumbling into the room. Anything to fill this frame, and I painted the cat.” On the day of the sale, some of the pictures brought very little but Dolph felt sure the frame would at least recoup his $15 investment. Dolph again: “The bids began - $10, $15, $20 and up to $85 – more than all the rest four times over. I said to myself, ‘By the gods, if the people want cats they shall have cats!’” Realizing that these provided a guaranteed income, Dolph ultimately worked almost exclusively as the man considered to be the foremost painter of cats in America. Today’s art collectors appreciate cats as much as their predecessors did, as Dolph’s cat and dog paintings command a premium whenever they come up for sale.

Starting in about 1875 Dolph divided his time between his studio in Manhattan and a country home in Bellport, Long Island. It was at this summer cottage near the water where he found the perfect place to house and care for the steady stream of cats and kittens who would become models for his paintings. There, in his sparsely furnished studio, kittens and puppies were free to roll about and play while Dolph sketched their every move in charcoal. Because they couldn’t be photographed -they were too fast for cameras of the time- the artist and his wife Mary resorted to all kinds of tricks to pose the kittens. Using caterpillars, toads or props to attract the cats’ attention, Dolph would make rough sketches of the kittens in a group and then he would draw each cat separately. These sketches were tacked all over his studio walls.

He was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1877 and became a full member in 1898. Other memberships included the Lotos, the Salmagundi, and the Kit-Kat clubs. He exhibited and won a medal at the Pan-American Expo in 1901 in Buffalo. Additionally, Dolph was an academician of the National Academy of Design, won a medal from the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition of 1901, and exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Paris Salon. Today, his work is in the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Portland Art Museum, and the Newark Museum.

Heart disease, however, plagued Dolph for years, and it was said that in his final days he became frustrated when he could not finish a painting of a favorite animal. He died in New York in 1903 in the home of a close friend.

His daughter, Florence, donated a majority of his works, and other Dolph art holdings, to The University of Nebraska Art Collection at the Sheldon Museum in Lincoln. Additional pieces are in the collection of The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. 

"Two Kittens and a Frog" Oil Painting on Academy Board Signed l.l "J Dolph"

SKU: 32
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