"All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed.
For after all, he was only human. He wasn’t a dog."
-Charles M. Schulz

A lot of people will tell you with that the greyhound dates back to Ancient Egypt. Modern evidence however, has shown us that this is not necessarily true. But you’ve probably heard what they say: Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

And greyhounds do inspire good stories.

Jacques-Laurent Agasse- "Nine Greyhounds in a Landscape"  c.1807

They are part of a group of dogs we classify as sighthounds meaning that, when hunting, they rely more on their vision than their sense of smell. And sighthounds DO go back to ancient Egypt in the form of the Saluki. A 2004 study of canine DNA classified the Saluki as one of 12 “Ancient Breeds,” but that same study found that modern greyhounds, while looking a great deal like salukis, are actually closer genetically to some herding dogs. Other sources say they might also have a lineage to the "Vertagus", a hunting dog bred by the Ancient Celts of Eastern Europe, making their way around the world in the 5th or 6th century BC.

So, while their origin is a bit cloudy, it is true that every pedigreed greyhound in modern times can be traced back to dogs that were recorded in English racing studbooks in the 18th century.

My family adopted two retired greyhounds from that robust lineage almost ten years ago. They’ve now both passed away, but they’ve left quite a mark on me. Me, the guy who didn’t want dogs in the first place and was resistant to getting them. In my defense, I think I was reluctant because part of me wanted to avoid the crushing grief that I now feel having lost two of my best friends- two animals who loved me without condition, and I them.

These dogs were my closest companions during tough times. Through a divorce, a shift in careers- during the most challenging years of my life- these funny little creatures were here. They slept in the same bed with me and in some ways, kept alive the caretaker in me when my kids had left. No matter how bad I fucked up my life and no matter how hard the road to recovery, I had a couple beating hearts that still relied on me and looked at me fondly. And this grief that I feel now when I look at the chair they used to sleep in, or I come home to a dark house, or realize that I don’t have to refill their water dish, it’s as tough to navigate as losing a relative. I’m hoping this essay will lift some of the weight that I still feel some months after the last one passed.

Greyhounds are leaners. They will sometimes show affection by standing close to you and just leaning. I guess I’m saying that I leaned on them too.

So to honor them I’d like to point to a little of the breed’s contibution to art, where they have been represented in many ways; as an ideal animal, as matters of historical record, as companions, as partners to gods, and also lovingly crafted in memorial portraits, at the behest of grief-stricken patrons like myself.

Sir Edwin Landseer- "Eos, A Favourite Greyhound, Property of HRH Prince Albert” 1841
Before Prince Albert became consort to his cousin Queen Victoria, he was a withdrawn and sullen boy. His mother, Princess Louise had been exiled for infidelity by his father Duke Ernest I, who was not much interested in fatherhood. Neglected by his parents and having only his brother for companionship, he was given a greyhound puppy to train and care for at age 14. He took to the work and found in his dog Eos, a companion and unconditional love.

By 21 Albert and Victoria were courting. In an early letter she asks about his dog, and in his reply Albert gives us a measure of the breed and a glimpse of his affection:

“You ask after…my faithful, but not disinterested Eos. She is very well, looks after herself as much as she can, sleeps by the stove, is very friendly if there is plum-cake in the room, very much put out when she has to jump over the stick, keen on hunting, sleepy after it, always proud and contemptuous of other dogs”

When he travelled to England to be with her, he sent Eos ahead with her own valet. Victoria had dogs of her own but grew to love Eos greatly and was glad to have her in the family. But everyone knew that she was Albert’s favorite.
Sir Edwin Landseer “Victoria, Princess Royal, with Eos” 1841
After the birth of their second child, Prince Ferdinand accidentally shot Eos during a celebratory hunt. When his brother Leopold, King of Belgium heard the news, he reportedly said that it would have been better if Ferdinand had shot another member of the royal family instead.

Eos survived the wound and the portrait was commissioned by Victoria for her husband as a christmas gift in 1841. In it, Eos stands proudly against red, watching over some of Albert’s personal objects, gloves, a hat and cane. Landseer will become a preeminent “animalier” or animal portraitist, and he will also be counted among the artists who usher in the idea that an animal portrait can convey personality, or say something about either it’s owner or itself.

In Landseer's portrait of Eos, her face is alert and attendant, as if Albert- or possibly a plum cake- is right outside the frame.

Eos passed away in 1844 and was buried at Windsor. Albert was heartbroken and there are letters and diaries from the time wherein other members of the royal family speak of Eos' passing with deep sympathy. Albert procured many pieces of art that featured her; drawings, table decorations, and also a life-size sculpture. It is said that he worked on some of these pieces himself. There are two bronzes of Eos, made using Landseer’s portrait for reference. One is at Windsor and the other at Albert and Victoria’s favored home, Osborne House.

Erte's "Symphony in Black" c.1910 and Louis Icart's "Speed" series
Erte's original "Symphony in Black" lithograph

If any animal and art movement seem meant for each other, it’s the greyhound and Art Deco.

The animal’s poise, blend of angles and cruves, and high society attachment made it a perfect representation of early century decadence and clarity of design. Greyhounds are made up of art deco lines.

Erté was a Russian-born artist, who spent most of his career in the thrall of turn-of-the-century Paris and the emerging styles of the avant garde. He created his most famous work "Symphony in Black" as a lithograph around 1910. He used the image widely and its influence on the style of his day was profound. Art Deco's popularity waned in the World War II era as well as the mid-century, but Erté lived long enough to see Art Deco’s revival in the 1960’s and 70’s, where hundreds of variations on Symphony were licensed in print and sculpture. It could be found in souvenir and trinket shops (as well as the Franklin Mint) forever leashing our modern impression of Art Deco to a lean black greyhound.

But he wasn’t the only artist of this era to use the breed as an archetype of the fluidity and grace that they were attempting to represent.

Louis Icart was born in Toulouse, France in 1880. His first art job was at a Paris postcard factory, embellishing prints with small touches of water color. This is where he got his first exposure to the etching process, which he would use for most of his life. He received a good deal of fame as an illustrator, mostly doing magazine and advertising work. But he created several larger prints, the most famous being “Speed” which he made in 1927.
For the entirety of his career, Icart’s work focused almost completely on renderings of women. Today he is considered a “Boudoir” artist as much as he is an Art Deco master, primarily because of these prints. "Speed" was so popular that he followed it up with two more varitations on the composition. In total, he made 8 pieces that featured greyhounds and women. And they often have the strong sense of movement that you see here.

Along with the blurred gestures of the dog, the women are often rendered with a wispy sort of feeling- they blend in and out of the background and shading. Their clothes are loose and flowing, reminiscent of classical dress. In classical art, the goddess of the hunt Diana is often shown with greyhounds. And one of Icart's early lithographs was of Diana coursing with dogs.

But the characters in this series feel less like gods and more as if they are representations of the wind itself, and as such, they are often anchored to the scene only by small details; by a hand on a leash, or a firmly planted high heel, or their smiling faces with a touch of ruddy color. These pieces are meant to be about the animals, and he treats them with a sensitivity that seems to come from careful observation. And, I think a great deal of admiration.

In the 1920’s Louis Icart was wealthy and in-demand. He toured America and his sales soared. But as Art Deco’s influence waned, so did Icart’s popularity. The great depression wiped out people's interest in prints and by World War II it was difficult for him to make more etchings due to the lack of copper available because of the war effort.

Louis Icart didn’t make it to the Art Deco revival, passing away in 1950. But his work has maintained a legacy and a testament to the artistic values of his time, as well as the dogs that represent it.

John Everett Millais- “Isabella” 1849
John Everett Millais was considered a child prodigy, being the youngest person to enter the Royal Academy of Arts, when he was 11 years old.

By 19 he felt that he had devoured all that the Academy could teach him and, with some friends, he founded the Pre-Raphaelite school of painting. They aimed to throw out mannerism and Michelangelo, in direct opposition to the Royal Academy’s teachings. The Pre-Raphaelites valued vivid color and well rendered nature as well as decorative patterns. They were repulsed by chiaroscuro, favoring the flattened figures of medieval paintings as well as the emotional content of unbalanced compositions and forced perspectives- all in service of symolist narrative. They pulled their themes from myths and poets like Keats and Tennyson, who were some of their idols.

“Isabella” was the first formed statement from the Pre-Raphaelites, painted by Millais when he was 20. It is based on a poem by Keats about a wealthy merchant family in Venice. Isabella has fallen in love with her brothers’ clerk, Lorenzo. The brothers learn of the secret relationship and, wanting to maintain their own scheme to marry Isabella off to a rich nobleman, they murder Lorenzo. Isabella learns of the tragedy, finds her love’s grave and cuts off his head, hiding it in a pot of basil which she tends to obsessively and waters with her tears.

There is plenty in this story that conjures imagery- some artists paint Isabella draped over her basil pot, full of a crazed morning. But Millais depicts the moment that the brothers realize Isabella and Lorenzo’s love, finding a great deal of narrative to showcase in his frozen moment, and he uses it wisely to present this new art movement to the world.
The brother in the foreground kicks vainly at a greyhound in front of Isabella, his straining leg cutting the composition; and as some have theorized, pointing at her hips. The dog seeks asylum in her lap, leaning into her. In a painting so full of detail and visual competition, we can see that Millais leaves the human feet under the table rough- likely we’re seeing the first and only layer of paint in those areas. But in contrast, he takes time to paint the paws of the dog- veins, tendons, knuckles and nails- all of the details expressing the animal's fear. It creates a tension which slows down the moment, stretching out the violent and vain act that Isabella provides a resigned balance to. Millais makes this dog central to the composition, no doubt because it’s a foreshadowing of Lorenzo’s fate. In the painting Lorenzo is offering Isabella a blood orange (another metaphor for the impending violence) and if only he could stop staring at her, he might see the viciousness that his employers are capable of.

And subtly tucked into the left corner of the painting, curled under the kicking brother’s precariously leaning chair, is another dog. It's curled up in a pose that’s pretty familiar to greyhound lovers, sleeping. But the combination of the dog and the chair create another anxiety. His paws are so close to the angling chair leg, his head is tucked into the front. You might see one of these moments coming that we’re all familiar with. If the chair slips and the brother lands on the dog, in his embarrassment he may double down on his rage. With a fresh embarrassment misdirected towards his bubbling anger at Lorenzo, he's liable to reach across the table and kill him in front of his guests.
Or maybe the dog represents Isabella, oblivious to the coming tragedy. The dog is sleeping under the weight of the brother’s act as a reference that soon Lorenzo’s ghost will come to his love in the night to reveal his fate.

The 39th stanza of Keat’s poem is in the voice of Lorenzo’s ghost. He is at Isabella's bedside describing his world as a spirit. It's a beautiful meditation on living, and the growing divide that he is feeling:

I am a shadow now, alas! alas!
Upon the skirts of human-nature dwelling 
Alone: I chant alone the holy mass, 
While little sounds of life are round me knelling, 
And glossy bees at noon do fieldward pass, 
And many a chapel bell the hour is telling,
Paining me through: those sounds grow strange to me, 
And thou art distant in Humanity.


Or the symbolism of both dogs might actually be more simple: They both serve to show that Isabella’s brothers don’t care what happens to an innocent who gets in the way of their desires. In their selfishness, scheming, and greed, they kick out and lean in any direction they want. And it’s
your fault if you get hurt in the process.

Jaques-Louis David "The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis" (detail) 1818

Each of these paintings has a story, and while I started this piece by saying that we can’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, I think an understanding of some facts are needed.
 
Through history, greyhounds like the ones in these images, were often well-treated by affluent individuals. In fact, Greyhounds survived during the black plague era because they were raised and bred for the wealthy by the church, They were isolated from the masses like their owners and patrons, which cemented their attachment to high society. At least until a couple hundred years ago.
 
As the racing studbooks of the 1800’s can attest, greyhounds are now bred entirely on their ability to run fast. There are more than 50,000 greyhounds registered to race in England and America every year. 17,000 in Australia. Mexico is a big racing country also. And the stories of their treatment varies. PETA says tens of thousands are put to death each year. Dogs have been found with cocaine and amphetamines in their system because breeders will inject them in an effort to get them to run faster. There was a petition in Australia to ban dog racing, citing the thousands of greyhounds that “disappear” each year in the gap between what they know to be the total population of dogs born versus the number of dogs that are officially registered to race.
John Charles Dolman "Table d'Hote at a Dog's Home" (detail) 1879
In 2002, a security guard for a track in Florida was caught with over 3,000 greyhound corpses on his property. He had been taking on extra work shooting them in the head at his home for decades. His lawyer said:

“If there’s anybody to be indicted here, it’s the industry because this is what they’re doing to these animals. The misery begins the day they’re born. The misery ends when my client gets a hold of them and puts a bullet in their head.”

Some defense.
 
But the Greyhound Racing Society of America says that 90% of all greyhounds get adopted or return to breed after the track. They are proud of their work and the care that they give their animals, citing the rest as aberrant behaviour. One side claims they sleep in cozy pens together, the other side says that thousands die from “Alabama Rot” a disease believed to come from feeding these dogs raw E. coli tainted beef, deemed unfit for consumption.
 
Albrecht Dürer "St. Eustace" (detail) 1501
In this controversy, I can only speak from my experience. I had two greyhounds for almost 10 years. They both had plenty of knicks. Serena had a circular scar on her haunch. We were told it’s common for them to get jabbed with cigarettes in an effort to get them to run. Beaux’s broad nose was scarred all over, either from fighting or from the wire muzzle they are made to wear. They had bad teeth, and worse breath.

When we brought Serena home, she couldn’t handle the environment change and the amount of space she was allowed to have, so we had to keep her in a closet for her first couple hours just to calm her down. When she was used to that we gave her a bedroom, and when she calmed again she took to the house. All because she had never had so much space for so long. Thankfully, after a few years this anxiety evaporated. She loved being in water so much that, on a trip to Mammoth, she cut and scraped her pads badly scrambling over slimy rocks- not listening to our calls to heel and relax- all just to get the chance to lay in every river and lake that she saw.

They're a weird breed. A lot of greyhounds don’t know how to use stairs because they’ve never seen them. Their years of breeding to race above all else has given a lot of them eccentricities, including a strange focus on things that they can’t let go of easily. If they were humans they might be considered spectrumy.
 
But when they ran, they were a miracle of organic machinery- an inspiration. I wrote about them in the second issue of this newsletter as an example of what accessing your full potential might look like. Lots of dog breeds are used for dog fights, but only one breed is used to race- and invited to endure all that comes with the honor. 

For all these reasons and more, greyhounds seem to be a most unique breed, if only for their suffering.
 
Alexandre François Desportes "Study of Greyhounds" c.1700
For whatever reason, they were the most loving animals I’ve ever known and hopefully this essay will ease my heart some. I know my grief will fade with more time. And when it does, I figure it's going to be hard to not go back to the adoption agency and get two more. I miss them and that gnaws at me now, but so does something else; the fact that there are a hundred more dogs down there (just at this one adoption agency) and the chances are pretty good that there is a pair of goofy, beautiful, valiant hearts waiting for a loving home. Waiting for a couch where they can flip over and sleep on their backs- legs twitching the air- dreaming of the track or even farther back in time. Like Jack London’s Buck dreaming by a fire- of running and hunting with early man. And of being admired and loved and cared for by us weird, slow bipeds with opposable thumbs. And maybe a plum cake, just for doing what they do best.
Thanks for reading.
 
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