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Toulouse-Lautrec's furry side

This image might surprise anyone familiar only with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's sardonic analysis of Parisian life and lowlife - the theater and circus, the brothel, the Moulin Rouge, the world of the caf-concerts. Throughout his abbreviated but prolific career, however, Toulouse-Lautrec retained his childhood fascination for animals. The circus horses and caricatural dogs in his better-known works do display a sure knowledge of animal anatomy and behavior.

But animals are a main subject in his book illustrations and his earliest paintings. This one of his dog, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was made when he was about 17.

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The painter's family origins were highly, and rather eccentrically, aristocratic. Hunting was an important part of the affluent country life he knew as a child. Flche ("Arrow") is a sporting dog, probably an Irish red-and-white setter This portrait shows its master's admiration not just for a lively pet, but also for the subtle understanding between hunting dogs and hunting humans.

The small domestic bird, a pullet or a bantam, perhaps, pecking with temerity at the seated dog's feet, contributes a humorous note of temptation to the portrait. Flche is all obedience. But nevertheless, the dog's alert stance unmistakably says: "That bird's mine, oh master, the instant you say the word!"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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