There is a phenomenon that occurs in almost every museum: from a collection of thousands, a few works of art or historical objects emerge as a set of ‘fan favorites’. At NSLM, one such popular piece is Foxhounds and a Terrier in a Stable Interior, by John Emms. Each subject is painted with a keen eye for detail, the scene is restful, informal, and dignified. In fact, Emms’ low vantage point prompts the viewer to see these hounds (and terrier) as equals. It quickly becomes clear which animals have the larger personalities.
Viewers love this painting for a multitude of reasons, including the colors, textures, and the hounds’ expressions. My favorite thing about this piece is that Emms uses triangular composition here in much the same ways that Renaissance artists did centuries before.
The triangle lends a sense of stability to traditional compositions. The wide base helps to ground the eye while the narrow peak draws the viewer’s gaze upwards, usually to a face. Even though the subject itself may not be symmetrical, a triangular composition suggests balance. Emms uses an intricate arrangement of paws, noses, tails, and ears to construct triangles in Foxhounds and Terrier in a Stable Interior, while Leonardo Da Vinci only used one figure in Mona Lisa. My favorite little scene in Emms’ piece is a grouping of three hounds in the back of the kennel. The downward gaze of the hound at the top, with the other two gazing across at each other, is strikingly similar to many Madonna and Child paintings of the Renaissance era.
In particular, one of my favorite comparisons is to Raphael’s The Madonna and Child. In this piece, a young Mary extends both of her arms outwards: her left arm reaches down to bring St. John the Baptist closer to herself, while her right hand is raised to wrap the infant Christ in her garment. The motion is at once maternal and deferential. Meanwhile, in Emms’ painting, we see a similarly intimate moment caught between three hounds. Though probably not a maternal scene, the two hounds lying in the hay regard the sitting hound somewhat respectfully. The sitting hound is pale in color, and his or her down-turned eyes suggest a kind of long-suffering piety recognized in older dogs who live around rambunctious puppies or children. In both paintings, the grouping of subjects creates a very clear triangle between the seated figures and two smaller or reposed figures in their charge.
Once you start recognizing triangles in painting compositions, it is very difficult to stop! I encourage you all to take a stroll through our galleries to see how many more examples you can find of sporting artwork that shares compositional geometry with Italian Renaissance masters.
Anne Marie Paquette is the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM). Her passion for museum work began shortly after graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in History from James Madison University. Between her expeience working at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center and the Washington Heritage Museums, she has done everything from designing summer camps to formulating major fundraisers. Have a question? Contact Anne Marie by e-mail