The Finest Dog Portrait Painter
San Francisco painter Jacqueline Probert has created a passionate following for her classic, elegant portraits—of beloved dogs. Capturing the divinity of dogs is her higher calling. Meet these canines and be inspired by Jackie’s spirit.
Jacqueline Probert has painted the adored dogs of several of my friends. I first met her through Nelson Bloncourt, the former owner of the late great Alabaster style store in San Francisco. Jacqueline is now displaying her work at Gump’s in San Francisco.
Jacqueline, a chic and stylish friend, is also a favorite among California interior designers as the official portraitist for their pampered and divine dogs.
What I admire most: her elegant portraits are not sentimental. They’re elegant, classical, and they portray these handsome dogs with such artistry. Think Stubbs and his 18th-century portraits of thoroughbred horses. Think Velasquez or Matisse—classic art. These dogs, as captured by Jackie’s brush, are noble, frisky, serious, high-minded, regal, gloriously handsome, loving, and knowing. Come and meet a very special and talented artist.
“I had rather see the portrait of a dog that I know than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world.” – Samuel Johnson, 1787
Come and meet Jackie—you will be uplifted.
I sat down with Jackie recently in her San Francisco, and, surrounded by her fine dog portraits, we chatted of dogs, their people companions, and capturing the beauty and mystery of beloved canines.
Jacqueline Probert, of Probert Art based in San Francisco, has been creating murals, trompe l´oeil works, faux finishes, and glorious custom wall glazes since 1985. Partners Jacqueline Probert and her husband Ted Somogyi combine their artistry and experience with a genuine love and in-depth knowledge of art, artists, and the history of painting. Jackie and Ted believe that “beauty is our highest calling. Jacqueline is also an avid animal welfare advocate and a Pets Unlimited trustee and supporter of other altruistic pet groups.
DDS: Your approach is that of the finest French and English portraitists.
JPS: There are many animal portraitists who have influenced me in different ways. Jean-Baptiste Oudry was a French painter who in 1749 painted a life-size portrait of the famous traveling rhino, Clara. I made the trip down to LA’s Getty museum to see it and others of his works. He used a white ground for his paintings, and I started doing this also, noticing increased brightness in my colors. Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) did wonderful, delicate and seductive work. She has influenced me to paint from nature, in my case at the San Francisco Zoo, where I love the kangaroos. We have for influence everyone from Titian in the Renaissance, Frans Snyders in the Baroque period, nineteenth-century emotive dog portraits from Rosa Bonheur and Maud Earl, and the great Lucien Freud and Andrew Wyeth in the 21st century. It is possible to see how major social and cultural concerns in Western culture were illustrated by these and other artists.
DDS: You are always experimenting and refining your work. What are you working on now?
JPS. Currently on my easel is a portrait of an elderly German Shepherd/Chow mix. It is the second painting I have done of this particular dog. The first one was done when the pet was a young pup of a year in age. The client had brought the dog over to my studio to be photographed.
My client left the studio to make some phone calls, and it was just me and the pooch. I thought the dog had a kind of wizened, far-reaching gaze, and, fooling around a bit, I waved one of my brushes around rhythmically in front of his eyes. As I murmured hypnotic phrases to him about getting tired and falling asleep, much to my surprise, his eyelids fluttered gracefully, he stretched out on the floor, and went to sleep.
I was touched by this large dogs’ gentle trust in me, and his willingness to let his guard down with someone he didn’t know too well.
You don’t have that experience with human subjects of portraiture! Now that I’ve been commissioned to paint this dog again at the age of thirteen, I am reflecting on this dog’s life, what kind of dog he has been, how well he was loved and loved in return. It’s in the way the eyes have become full of experience, and world-weariness, too.
DDS: You paint people, too.
JPS: I strive to capture the same emotions in the eyes of humans, too. I see the same expressions in all eyes of sentient creatures. I have painted shark ‘portraits’ too, and while they may be lacking in empathy, they make up for it in the kind of predatory glance that can only come from 100,000 years of evolutionary perfection of form. I strive to capture the gaze that emanates from the creature in its earthly form, and the experiences registered there.
DDS: You love painting dogs.
JPS: It is fascinating as a portrait painter to reflect on the experiential difference between painting human subjects and animals. While I still very much enjoy drawing people, particularly in charcoal, I have lost interest in taking commissions. As I set out to produce a portrait, I am never sure what the final expression of mood on the face of the sitter will be. I have found as a portrait painter that I function as a conduit. Once a painter becomes fluid with the tools of the métier, she can lose herself to the process of observing and recording. I have done representations of people that radiated sadness. For one commission, no matter what I tried, I could not eradicate the anger in the face. That client, who had been a sort of friend, did not return my calls after that. Good lesson. Animals do not even know they have ‘faces’, and that fact is a great comfort and relief, even an inspiration, to me. Imagine if we as humans were not so overly identified with our visages and how they appear to others. The world would be a vastly different place. A much more peaceful one, probably. After all, an aging face is not the source of such anxiety for an animal as it is for us. Human portraiture after all is a function of recording ego. Not so with animals.
DDS: You’ve been painting and thinking about portraiture for years.
JPS: I continue to be fascinated with portraiture as a record of sentience, in all its nonhuman forms, on planet earth. With animals, there is no barrier between what I see in the eyes and what I am being ‘allowed’ to see. No emotional/psychological fallout when the painting is done. Except for positive emotional reactions. This Christmas past, four of my clients gave their beloveds portraits of their dogs. I got three phone calls on Christmas Day telling me that their significant others had tears in their eyes when they saw their dogs likeness on canvas.)
DDS: You have a Buddhist way of looking at our ephemeral life.
JPS: What remains in a portrait is a bridge between the viewer and the recorded image of one of life’s fleeting lifeforms. Like a reading from the I Ching (the Chinese Book of Changes), these simple portraits are a slice through time revealing the shimmery, transient nature of all animate matter. Our companion animals are especially fleeting, having life-spans that are one-fifth of ours. This is what makes them especially poignant and compelling to me. They have such an impact on our psyches.
DDS: I so admire your awareness of the history of animal portraiture and its importance in each century.
JPS: The earliest recorded images from the hands of artists were created 30,000 years ago in the caves of Lascaux, in France. It is significant that these images were of animals; great noble creatures leaping and running across cave walls. In our modern culture, we are distracted, disconnected, with short attention spans. The rise in animal awareness comes as an antidote to these feelings. Animals are grounded, and offer us the opportunity to recognize what we are missing in our own modern psyches.
DDS: I hear you are painting a thoroughbred horse.
JPS: Also on another easel is a painting in progress of a gorgeous thoroughbred called Tucker. His owner, Ann Jamieson, who is a well-known horse trainer, judge and author of two volumes of stories about horses, contacted me at my studio at Branford Point, CT. This is a beautiful creature with a fine and mellow disposition. I have always drawn animals, having grown up with cats and dogs, but horses were my favorites to draw when I was very young.
I took riding lessons as a child, and drawings of horses were always a way to understand them better and to prolong the experience of having ridden them. As anyone who loves horses knows, their combination of massive strength and delicacy, the soft softness of their chins, and that deep and soulful gaze from their eyes makes them irresistible. The fact that they’ve not only put up with humans, but have helped us in building our civilizations, makes them supremely moral creatures from whom we could learn many a lesson. Certainly we owe them a debt of gratitude.
I adore the process of painting their sensuous forms, and looking into their eyes. It is so interesting to photograph them. One must be very respectful, never intimidating them by thrusting a camera into their faces. I love to just be around them first, drawing them and letting them get used to me.
DDS: What camera do you start with?
JPS: My old Canon FTb camera equipped with a 135 mm lens allows me to get a very close shot without being in the face of the animal. The photograph I take is of critical importance, because for me the painting must stand on its own outside the genre of ‘animal painting’. I look for strong contrast of light and dark (chiaroscuro), which exaggerates contrast between excitement/tranquility, form/emotional content, otherness/sameness.
DDS: How do you get started?
JPS: Meeting the animals is a big factor in getting to know their personalities. It is a joy to paint two or more animals together who share the same humans and households. One of the interesting side benefits from being in this line of work is meeting all the different types of dogs there are in this world. Considering that all the breeds evolved from the wolf in the last several centuries, and all the many mutts in their configurations, it is quite an ongoing study in biology.
JPS: An ongoing project for me in a series of oil paintings of Siamese cats, my favorite cat breed. We had seal-point Siamese cats in succession while I was growing up (invariably named Sam), and until two years a go, I had a pair of sisters named Blanche and Baby Jane. They lived to be 16 years old, and died within 1 month of each other. I drew and painted them constantly.
DDS: Do you have favorites?
JPS: What I recall from the past 15 years of animal portraiture are all the different personalities, as different and distinct as humans. As I look through my portfolio of images, I get a distinct feeling for each of my ‘models’. The look of the wet feet and underside of ‘Bubba’, who is no longer with us. Bubba was just out of the house when I came to photograph him, and was very intent about doing the rounds scouting for that knows what in the wet undergrowth of the garden. He looked like something that had been following Mastodons for crumbs, back in prehistory.
I loved the wild look of the glamorously coiffed poodle Romeo, who also looked prehistoric, and yet contemporary.
On several occasions I’ve been told that dogs have barked at their own images in the paintings. I consider that the highest compliment!
There is the calm and dignified look on the French Bulldog, Fanny. By the 1900’s, this breed was a popular butchers and coachmen’s companion in Paris. Fortuna, the Scottish terrier, bears the reserved and slightly aloof quality of the excellent guardian. I also love the twin expressions on the double portrait of young and alert long-legged Beagle Hughey, juxtaposed with the more serious and contemplative expression on the elderly Labrador Parker.
DDS: You get caught up in the lives of your dogs.
JPS: There have been a few times when we didn’t get to finish the job due to the deaths of the subjects. The few spontaneous photos I did get of one subject bore unmistakable intimations of sadness and imminent departure. In fact, what has developed is a sort of sixth sense about animals regarding their longevity. I don’t mention this to their human companions, though.
DDS: Jackie, you have such a great perspective on your work.
JPS: What continues to make dogs enticing subject matter is their close proximity to us, and because of that unrivaled proximity they are uniquely suited to mirror our story of sentience in a body on a planet. Our two species, Homo Sapiens and Canis Familiaris, are deeply intertwined. The abiding mystery is that they offer unquestioned acceptance of their bond with us combined with their own possession of preternatural qualities that we could scarcely fathom, yet sense directly. It has been said, “Make me the kind of person my dog thinks I am”. That we should aspire to be as unconditionally accepting as dogs are, and as non-judgmental, are worthy goals indeed.
Commissions by appointment only: Fees from $1,500 for a black and white portrait. Where to find Jacqueline Probert paintings and stores that represent her work:
Gump’s in San Francisco: 135 Post Street, San Francisco, phone 415-982-1616, or 800-284-8677, www.gumps.com
Marcus Robbins and Wayne Armstrong are representing Jackie’s paintings at Pennyweight: 1337 Main Street, St. Helena, CA, and phone 707-963-3198.