Putting on the Dog

There’s a reason why Mickey Mouse has four fingers and Eric Cartman wears mittens. Generations of art students have learned that the hand is one of the most difficult parts of the anatomy to draw. The Huntington’s one-room exhibition, “A Show of Hands,” displays several generations of British artists’ attempts to represent the human hand. The outlier is Edwin Landseer’s studies of a dog’s paw, done when he was a very young British artist—age 14.

Landseer made use of drawings like the Huntington’s in schmaltzy animal paintings like Dignity and Impudence (1839, below). Hugely successful with the public, and taken seriously by Victorian critics, Landseer became a joke in the 20th century. In the 1969 film version of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, John Cleese plays an auctioneer who knocks down Dignity and Impudence to boorish Americans. The Americans buy it at a ridiculously inflated price, and Cleese—in the employ of billionaire trickster Guy Grand—destroys the painting in front of the bidders’ eyes. Among the real-life Americans conservative enough to buy Landseer was William Randolph Hearst—whose A Group of Animals, Geneva ended up at LACMA.

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