December 8, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Draw my unicorn

By |2018-03-21T18:38:43+01:00November 17th, 2009|Lifestyle Archive|
Raphael's "Young Woman with Unicorn."

few weeks ago, I visited my favorite Rome museum, the Galleria Borghese. The new Caravaggio/Bacon exhibit gave me another excuse to spend time at the Galleria, a museum I love for its park location, underground café, uccelleria and garden, as well as the art collection.

The painting in the gallery that always captivates me is Raphael’s “Young Woman with Unicorn,” circa 1506. Before seeing this in person, I had thought Raphael was a hack, but when I looked at it for the first time, I concluded that Raphael was indeed a master of expressions, both human and animal. Just as the title states, the painting is a portrait of a young woman holding a small unicorn, with both subjects looking at the painter/viewer as if in conversation. Raphael’s winsome unicorn opened my eyes to a genre of painting that is often overlooked: Pet Portraiture.

Immortalizing an animal is a Herculean task. Artists must overcome the mercurial personalities of pets (if working from life) while pleasing their offbeat owners, which may be why contemporary pet portraits are notoriously bad. Animals look stuffed or over-styled, backgrounds are cheesy, and materials used — oil, acrylic, fabric, yarn — add a cumbersome weight to the overall effect. Within the genre of pet portraits, the most kitsch, as well as my favorite, is the needlepoint pillow, a stitched, cushion portrait of dog, cat or other animal often times wearing 16th ruffs. To be fair, not all portraits are staid and heavy-handed as the pillows. Some of the best are sketches in pastel or pencil; material that creates a spontaneous feel.

In my research of pet portraiture, I found that I had a passion to paint again. And for the next several weeks, I locked myself in my house and painted Bella in watercolors and guache. I created a series of miniature Bella vignettes that I would photograph and email to my friends in Los Angeles in the hopes that one of them would appreciate my artistic ability and the value of an animal portrait. In Rome, I gave the vignettes as gifts. As expected, only children really liked them.

Bella as subject matter was not enough.

I studied my friends’ animals, in life and photos, and produced a series of dog paintings with subtle modern art themes. I bragged about my Malevich white-on-white painting of Zambi, a white Jack Russell/Chihuahua portrayed while seated in a white porcelain bathtub.

My Mafalda paintings were Giacomo Balla-inspired, dog-in-motion sketches. After seeing a John Singer Sargent show, I painted a very formal, seated “Drexall The Pug” portrait (Sargent painted “Pointy”). It was a dog’s eye-view of the history of modern art.

Each painting was given as holiday gifts to the pets’ owners, received with coos and awes, establishing the utter cheesiness and sheer pleasure of pet portraiture and confirming that if you do have the desire to immortalize your pooch or kitty cat on canvas, silkscreen, paper or pillow cushion, you must do it. As I look around for my Bella vignettes, sadly, I have none of my own. Time to pick up the brushes.

About the Author:

Erica Firpo wrote The American's pet advice column from 2006 to 2009. She is a freelance travel and culture writer who lives in Rome with husband, daughter and faithful sidekick Bella. She has worked for Fodor's Rome edition, Luxe City Guides and National Geographic Travel, as well as writing art reviews for Zing and other U.S.-based magazines.