LET’S ASSUME YOU HAVE A PET, A HANDSOME PET, WITH EXEMPLARY conformation and a winning smile. It’s a pet, you believe, every bit the equal of Caligula’s horse Incitatus, whom the Emperor threatened to make a consul; or the First Family’s Millie, whose biography has earned $625,000 for charity; or even Roy Rogers’s Trigger, so beloved his owner had him stuffed for the ages. What would you do with such a pet? You would ring up Count Bernard de Clavière d’Hust, who—for a fee ranging from $30,000 to $250,000—will render Spot on canvas, in a style to do the Masters (and the master) proud.
Of course, you wouldn’t be the first. The Count has immortalized Alybar, Prince Charles’s favored steeplechaser; Fitzi, a beloved dachshund belonging to Patricia Lawford’s daughter, Robin; and even Queen Elizabeth’s Trooping the Colour mare Burmese. “That horse was trained not to move an ear, even in the case of an atomic bomb falling,” says Clavière, 57. “Everyone in the stable was trying to make a noise so she would move and have an expression. It took half an hour before she lifted her eyelid to look at me.” The hard work paid off: When presented with Burmese’s likeness, the Queen remarked, “The eye of the horse—lovely.”
Born in Lyons, France, to a family with a lineage extending to the 16th century, Clavière was raised at his uncle’s castle, where he began painting local swans at an early age. Later, he spent two years studying with Etienne Polet, chief restorer of paintings at Versailles. Though Clavière eventually tried advertising, banking and public relations, he never strayed far from an easel. In 1969, when he was 35, he received his first commission: to paint a champion filly for the president of the French Trotting Society. Horses subsequently became a Clavière specialty.
He is now acknowledged as one of this century’s leading animalists—a reputation his prices seem to confirm. For some clients, he notes, the bond between animal and owner is extremely strong. “People’s pets are their own private garden,” says Clavière. “Even when people cannot communicate with others, they can communicate with their animals. The animals become very important in their lives.”
After several stays in Lexington, Ky., where he painted champion thoroughbreds, including Spectacular Bid, Seattle Slew and John Henry, Clavière moved to Oyster Bay, N.Y. He lives there now with his second wife, Anne-Marie, and three dogs—a Russian wolfhound, a greyhound and a Scottish terrier—and works in a glass-enclosed atelier off their chintz-and antiques-filled house. Although the Clavière’ home is an artistic bestiary, the most prominent portrait is of Anne-Marie. That painting came off exceedingly well, but Clavière prefers painting quadrupeds. “When you paint animals,” he says, “they don’t complain about the way you draw their eye or their mouth.”
Given the size and unpredictability of many of his subjects, Clavière usually works from photos that he takes himself. He likes the work. “The world of animals is very essential to me,” he says. “They create some kindness in our lives, and to paint them gets one closer to a sweetness in life that is disappearing every day.”
TOBY KAHN in Oyster Bay