Our book today is a little gem from 1946, something long-awaited by his many fans at the time: The Morgan Dennis Dog Book, a collection of the dog-illustrations of Boston’s own Morgan Dennis, a dapper and hilarious man who grew up on the narrow streets of Dorchester and became a very successful popular illustrator in the 1940s, selling his spot illustrations (no pun intended) and full-dress portraits to such stalwart venues as Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and the dear old Boston Sunday Post Magazine.
Back when ad campaigns meant commissioned artwork (rather than zippy Photoshopping), Dennis was able to make a pretty good living doing custom illustrations, and his home on Cape Cod – as happy and welcoming a place as you could want – was partly funded by the dogs (and select cats) he drew for paying customers.
Leafing through this book, it’s easy to see why his work was so popular. It’s not just his technical expertise, although like most professional ad men of his day, he was a thorough professional in terms of craft. Much more so, it’s the sparkle of life in his various dogs, the way he manages to capture not just the likeness of certain individual animals but also the general sense of joy and curiosity and absurdity that characterize so much domestic canine existence.
There are indeed formal portraits in these pages, everybody from chow-chows to pekineses to great German Shepherds to the Scotties he portrayed better than anybody. The year before the appearance of this book, Dennis had illustrated a children’s book about a lovable little basset hound named Burlap who has all kinds of misadventures, and Burlap shows up in these pages. The prototypes for many successful ad campaigns also show up here, in rough sketches and finished works. There are even some of the many cats Dennis kept as pets throughout his life, the wretch.
The idea of such ad campaigns has almost disappeared entirely, in this age when ads are always photographs and can often be videos. So it was heart-warming to run across this lovely old volume (at the Brattle, where else?) and get to re-live a bit of a bygone age. Morgan Dennis is long since dead, of course, and almost all the client firms for which he did work over the years have likewise ceased to exist, and I don’t foresee any kind of Dennis Revival taking place any time soon, so it’s really only thin old books like this one that stand between artists like him and complete oblivion. And it’s always fun to watch Morgan Dennis dogs at play.
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