The surest way to annoy an art critic is to admit you prefer old-fashioned representational art, the kind you experience with your eyes, to abstract art whose intellectual theories fire other parts of the brain.
Standing before a grandiose Frederic Church landscape or going backstage with Degas is to experience, as closely as metaphysically possible, another time and place. It’s great when art can do that, especially if you believe that is the essence of the artistic process. The best sporting art transports you from the stuffy office to the pulsing air of the autumn forest. Music does that, too. A little Jimmy Buffett, and you’re in Margaritaville.
It doesn’t take a lot to travel a long way. Recently, in a gallery full of first-class dog paintings, a tiny 2-3/8-inch x 3-3/8-inch black and white drypoint (a type of printing) by Marguerite Kirmse transported me from Madison Avenue to the piney woods of the Carolinas, kicking up quail in the saw grass behind two quivering bird dogs seized up on point.
If you haven’t heard of Marguerite Kirmse (1885–1954), she is the British-born canine artist from the 1930s and 1940s whose myriad drypoints portray several dozen breeds in every possible circumstance. Her 110 Scottish terrier works are by far her most popular and collectible (and expensive), but she also produced some fine images of spaniels and pointers and English setters working the characteristic landscapes of her husband’s South Carolina plantation and their Connecticut farm.
Kirmse was both an artist and a gifted musician, but after her arrival in America in 1910, at age 25, the scale tipped decidedly towards the palette. In her heyday she was the horsey set’s favorite canine artist during the “golden era of sport” that flourished on Long Island’s Gold Coast. She worked during the height of the Great Depression, when paper was so dear she purchased it by the sheet rather than in reams. As the orders trickled in, she “pulled” small batches of two or three drypoints at a time. Yet many of her works still became top sellers.
Her bona fides as a sporting artist stem from two books devoted to hunting dogs published by Derrydale Press. She also illustrated Rudyard Kipling’s Collected Dogs as well as Lassie Come Home and many others. Her dogs even decorated a set of Wedgwood plates, and her eight limited-edition miniature bronzes are highly sought by collectors. Foxhunters are familiar with her famous aquatint set, The Fox, and later, The Hound.
People love her work because it displays a tremendous emotional understanding of dogs, their expressions and behaviors. Which isn’t surprising, as Kirmse was practically drowning in dogs. Her breeding kennels in Connecticut housed 60 to 70 airedales, wire-haired fox and Irish terriers, English setters, pointers, various spaniels, and her adored Scotties (her husband was president of the Scottish Terrier Club of America). She expertly showed her dogs, participated avidly in field trials and proficiently shot over them.
Kirmse’s masterful work is unmatched by today’s sporting artists; it gracefully evokes a past when artists didn’t calculate the hours invested in producing a work, when painting hunting dogs was inspired by something you did and not by a trip you’d booked.
Why is she unmatched? Three reasons: because she perfectly understood animal anatomy, both academically and face-to-face; because her dogs’ body language and clean simple lines are flawless from head to tail; and because she is one of very few artists who expressed herself through the exacting technical demands of drypoint.
What, exactly, is drypoint? Like etching, whose history is long and limited but includes Dürer, Piranesi, Rembrandt, Gauguin, Picasso and Chagall, drypoint is not for everyone. It is a printing technique called intaglio—or incised/carved printing—the opposite of bas-relief or raised printing. Kirmse used a diamond-pointed needle to inscribe her drawings directly on unblemished copper plates. (The major difference between etching and drypoint is that etching requires acid to burn the lines; a dry point does not.) She worked with the ease of a pencil on paper, and her loose drawing style shows the rare gift of a hand both confident and spontaneous.
In drypoint, the depth of the line controls the depth of color: the deeper the line, the more ink it holds and the darker the line when printed. Because the carving process leaves a nearly invisible ragged edge called a burr, a softness and subtlety of line distinguishes drypoint from etching, although both processes can be used in the same work.