Water Spaniel Confronting a Heron
Jean–Baptiste Oudry ( French, 1686 - 1755 )
In Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s “Water Spaniel Confronting a Heron,” there are no signs of civilization, no classical column, no gentle sunny vista, and no safely cleared foreground. The canine protagonist is an independent force; its body, especially its clipped tail, bears the evidence of human care, but it wears no collar and pays no attention to anything or anyone beyond the borders of the picture plane. The dog and the bird are totally subsumed into nature, hemmed in by the threatening sky, the overwhelming vegetation, and the stream or pond at the bottom of the canvas. Oudry makes sure that we, the viewers, are immersed right along with his subjects, by organizing the composition around an extremely low, dog’s-eye point of view. Oudry’s picture was painted at a moment of political uncertainty in France, when power was divided between a libertine regent, a rebellious nobility, and a twelve-year-old king. The elite men who hunted, and who bought hunting art, were searching for a visual language to channel their frustrations with the Regency and picture their political aspirations. Traditional history painting was ill-equipped to propose alternatives to the old form of absolute monarchy. Other forms of painting, like Jean-Baptiste Pater’s fête galante or François Boucher’s pastoral landscape, avoided these political thickets. Oudry plunges us right into them, asking us to think of ourselves as valiant combatants in a life-or-death battle against a powerful adversary. The visual language of the hunt, an activity tied to royal and noble privilege, is purged of all human constraint and artifice, and reduced—or rather expanded—to a battle between free and independent beings. Adapted from Amy Freund, "Good Dog! Jean-Baptiste Oudry and the Politics of Animal Painting," in “French Art of the Eighteenth Century: The Michael L. Rosenberg Lecture Series at the Dallas Museum of Art,” ed. Heather MacDonald (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art and the Michael L. Rosenberg Foundation, 2016), 67–80.