February 06, 1989 12:00 PM

by Robert Rosenblum

Renoir painted the pert button-nosed Tama. So did Manet. The model these 19th-century French masters so admired was not, however, a voluptuous madame or a beguiling demoiselle. It was a black-and-white dog, a Chin by breed, and Tama is only one of this book’s canine stars. Rosenblum, a noted Manhattan-based art historian, usually writes on such weighty subjects as Cubism and Romanticism. Here, he makes the perhaps over-ambitious point that the way dogs appear in art may tell nearly as much about the sociocultural course of the West as, say, wars and revolutions. Mostly, though, he keeps the limits of his dog run well defined. His survey begins in the 1700s and ends with today’s postmodern critters, one a graffiti-inspired Keith Haring cur. There’s lots of variety. Consider Jean-Jacques Bachelier’s Dog of the Havannah Breed (1768), depicting a poodle that has been shaved, groomed and beribboned to a nauseatingly artificial degree. There’s a plaster of a defecating dog by minor 19th-century Italian sculptor Adriano Cecioni. The mechanics of movement were more delicately rendered in photographs by Eadweard Muybridge, showing his mastiff Dread in a walk, trot and gallop. The most haunting canine image in post-World War II art is Alberto Giacometti’s angst-filled 1951 sculpture of a skulking street mongrel. A far happier pooch is Alex Katz’s Skye terrier Sunny, painted nearly as huge as a movie screen. It hangs in the Milwaukee Art Museum. Rosenblum has dedicated this often delightful book to Harry, Molly, Lola and Clara, four-legged creatures of his acquaintance. (Abrams, $27.50)

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