The world of purebred dogs is cast into the limelight every February when thousands of dog lovers, exhibitors, show judges and breeders descend upon New York City for the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Among the dog-centric activities in the city, the annual exhibition at the William Secord Gallery continues to shine brightly. Located at 52 East 76th Street in Manhattan, the William Secord Gallery is the world’s only exclusively dog art gallery, and its director/curator, William Secord, is the world’s unrivaled expert in the field of dog art.
This year Mr. Secord has scored an unprecedented coup de dog art in presenting an exhibition of 150 dog- and other animal-related paintings, sculptures, drawings, and collectibles from the collection of the “First Lady of Dogdom,” Mrs. Rockefeller Dodge.
Yes, Ethel Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge was one of those Dodges and married one of those Rockefellers! She and her husband, Marcellus Hartley Dodge, were heirs to their families’ enormous fortunes and were declared “America’s wealthiest young couple” when they married in 1907, worth over $3 billion in today’s currency. Never much interested in New York’s high society, Mrs. Dodge seemingly was consumed by three passions: art collecting, purebred dogs, and charity work. She amassed an unprecedented collection of dog painting and sculptures in addition to an eclectic array of antique bells, jewelry, tapestries, vases, clocks, and coins.
In dogs, she became one of America’s most successful breeders and show judges, breeding and importing some of the most famous English Cockers, Dobermans, German Shepherds, Bloodhounds, and Pointers in the nation. In all, it is said that she dabbled in 85 breeds, more or less. Not only did she own two Westminster Kennel Club Best in Show winners—the Pointer, Ch. Nancolleth Markable (1932) and the Doberman Pinscher, Ch. Ferry v Rauhfelsen of Giralda (1939), Mrs. Dodge was the first woman ever to judge Best in Show at Westminster, which she did in 1933. Despite such lofty accomplishments in dogs, her true claim to fame in the fancy was establishing the Morris & Essex Kennel Club in 1927. For 30 years, the Morris & Essex Kennel Club dog show, held on the polo fields of her magnificent Giralda Farms estate, was the largest, grandest, and most prestigious show in America, surpassing even Westminster.
In 1958, Mrs. Dodge, a tireless philanthropist and lover of all animals, founded the Saint Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, New Jersey, as a sanctuary for stray dogs and cats. Upon her death, she bequeathed some of her art collection to Saint Hubert’s, 150 of those items are on sale at the current exhibition at the Secord Gallery to benefit the organization’s capital campaign. Mr. Secord, working in conjunction with Saint Hubert’s, organized this exhibition to further the mission of the organization: to alleviate the suffering and neglect of companion animals and to provide services that support the human/animal bond.
The collection includes 19th-century paintings by French, British and American artists including George Earl, Marguerite Kirmse,Gustav Muss-Arnolt, and Percival Rosseau; French and American dog and horse bronze by artists including Jules Geilbert, Jules Moigniez, Rosa and Isodore Bonheur; watercolor portraits by Mrs. Dodge’s favorite artist, Reuben Ward Binks; drawings by Edwin Landseer, Arthur Wardle and Binks; as well as many important sterling silver trophies won by Mrs. Dodge’s famous show dogs.
It’s appropriate for Westminster week that the exhibit includes five oil paintings by the American artist Gustav Muss-Arnolt (1858-1927), who was not only a highly regarded painter but also an all-breed dog show judge, who served on the Westminster Best in Show judging panel twice in addition to judging at the show 11 other times. Muss-Arnolt was also a field trial judge and his love of sporting dogs certainly is apparent in his paintings such as “Pointers in the Field” and “Hunk o”Luck & Safe Hit,” two black and white English Setters in the grass.
Among the 45 bronzes for sale is a life-size casting of a Pointer and a pheasant by French artist Jules Moigniez (1835-1894), considered to be his masterpiece by bronze expert Joseph Reinis. One of the 40 watercolors by Binks is a stunning portrait of the 1939 Westminster Kennel Club Best in Show winner, Doberman Pinscher Ch. Ferry von Rauhfelsen of Giralda, imported by Mrs. Dodge just weeks before the show. An oil painting by Marguerite Kirmse portrays Mrs. Dodge’s pick for Best in Show at Westminster in 1933, Airedale Terrier Warland Protector of Shelterock, one of the few nonchampions to take home the BIS trophy. Speaking of “dog show bling,” the 30 sterling silver trophies date back as far as 1928 and were awarded at various shows, including Morris & Essex, Westminster, Chicago International as well as parent club specialty shows. The most historically significant trophy is a large two-handled copper and silver cup believed to be the first ever AKC Best in Show trophy.
A couple of odds and ends in the collection have also attracted some attention, including signed (pawed) photos of Rin Tin Tin, inscribed to Mrs. Dodge. Secord shares, “The client lamented that the second photo of Rinny from the exhibition was already sold. When she took hers to the framer, she discovered another original signed photo of Rin Tin Tin behind the first! She called the Gallery and graciously paid for the second. She told me, ‘It’s a “win win” for me and Rin Tin Tin!’ Saint Hubert’s made more money, and her framer got another project.”
No one sums up Mrs. Dodge’s influence on purebred dogs better than Bo Bengtson, himself a noted breeder and judge, and author of the quintessential volume Best in Show: The World of Show Dogs and Dog Shows: “It would be safe to say that no individual before or since has been as influential on as many different levels in dogs as Mrs. Dodge. She owned more top dogs of more breeds than anyone else either before or since; she was also a philanthropist, a writer, a judge, and—perhaps most important for the dog fancy—a dog show organizer. The annual Morris & Essex Kennel Club dog show… would become the biggest and best dog show in the United States.”
The legacy of Mrs. Dodge is alive and well in America today. The Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge Foundation, established after her death in 1974, supports and encourages “those educational, cultural, social and environmental values that contribute to making our society more human and our world more livable.” Shortly after Mrs. Dodge’s death, an estate sale of her possessions attracted over 100,000 buyers and raised $1.3 million for the new foundation that bears her name.
The legacy of Mrs. Dodge’s famous show lives on, too! The Morris & Essex Kennel Club dog show, which Mrs. Dodge abandoned in 1957 after 30 years, was revived by a dedicated group of show fanciers led by Wayne Ferguson in 1997. The new group staged the first revival in October 2000 on the still magnificent grounds of Mrs. Dodge’s Giralda Farms estate, and the show is held once every five years.
The current exhibition at the William Secord Gallery: “An Artistic Legacy: The Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge Collection” may indeed be the last opportunity to view a significant part of Mrs. Dodge’s art collection. If you’re a dog person, an art collector, an history buff, and/or an animal lover in the New York area, don’t miss this sensational exhibit on display through March 24, 2012. Everyone can visit the Gallery’s terrific website and view the entire exhibition, including color photographs, details of size, framing, medium and more. Proceeds from the sale of all items will benefit the Saint Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center.
All dog lovers should be grateful to both Mrs. Dodge and gallery director William Secord for caring not only about the legacy of purebred dogs but also about the welfare of homeless, lost and abandoned dogs in our communities. Support the exhibition and Saint Hubert’s!