In Search of Richard Fath’s Dog Sculptures
“There is no accounting for taste,” goes the well-worn saying. While there probably is some accounting, somewhere, the fact is that we oftentimes cannot understand what compels someone to respond to a style of furniture or a poem or a work of art if it is something that we ourselves do not find compelling or interesting.
This applies, as well, to an artist’s reputation. There are great artists with huge and well deserved reputations; there are not-so-great artists with surprisingly large followings; and there are wonderful artists who never achieve the recognition, nor reap the accolades, that should be theirs. Among this category is the French artist Richard Fath (1900-1952) who created an impressive body of work.
Fath loved animals as subjects – especially dogs, which were by far the largest area of his work. He painted, drew and made engravings, but his best and most extensive area of work was his sculpture.
Fath sculpted in bronze, terracotta and plaster and carved in wood and marble. A head study of a poodle would be executed in terracotta, again in plaster and then in bronze. A Pekingese in a similar pose might be carved in wood and modeled in terracotta. Along with his pieces in the round, he produced many plaques in relief, again in a variety of materials. He created bronze medallions that were awarded as prizes at dog shows, a tradition that began in the 19th century.
His work is naturalistic, can but contain elements of the impressionistic. Dog art historian and gallery owner William Secord describes Fath as an “artist of extraordinary talent who, when his peers were working in the accepted, stylized mode of the art deco, chose to depict dogs and animals with a verisimilitude that is unmatched to this day.
Fath executed commissioned pieces for the Ministry of Agriculture and Société Centrale Canine. Numerous museums in France have examples of his work. The American Kennel Club and the Museum of the Dog in St. Louis contain his sculptures. Even so, he is not well known in America.
I first became acquainted with Fath’s work in Paris at the Brocante de la Bastille, a large art and antiques fair that sets up along one side of a wide canal, or basin, full of house boats just off the Seine. Later I found pieces of his work at the huge flea market at Saint-Ouen. To my delight, one dealer had a small drawer full of dog show medals and other medallions by Fath.
On later trips, I sought out a shop near the Eiffel Tower on Avenue de la Bourdonnais that specialized in art and antiques related to dogs, hunting and horses. It turned out that the owner was a friend of Fath’s son, who had written a biography of his father. The shop had a number of pieces of Fath’s work available, as well as copies of the biography. Although I could not always negotiate an acceptable price, the shop nonetheless became a regular stop on my trips to Paris.
Years before, on my very first trip to France, Paris placed me on her speed dial. She called frequently and I was too weak to just say no to her invitations. So there I was, again, on the Avenue de la Bourdonnais heading toward what had become one of my favorite shops, but with some concern. It was not unusual for a closed sign to be hanging on the door.
Before leaving on this trip, I had purchased a wonderful, large terracotta sculpture of a recumbent Great Dane by Fath. As I walked toward the shop, I was thinking about that piece. It inspired my imagination to wonder what treasures might be in store for me a few blocks ahead. Nothing was. The store was closed.
I cupped my hands around my eyes, pressed against the glass barrier, and surveyed the inside of the shop beyond my grasp. Yes, I would like to see this and, yes, I would love to see that thing in the corner much closer, as well. And, YES, I would really like to see the large recumbent Great Dane sculpted from marble that was the same as my terracotta piece. The Great Dane glowed within the darkened shop. Its raised head was looking at me as if it had just awakened from a deep sleep. It beckoned me. I telephoned the owner, but we could not reach a time agreeable for both of us. I never saw the piece up close, and it was a disappointment not to shake its paw. I have often wondered why Richard Fath is not a better known artist. He certainly deserves to be. Why isn’t his work more sought after, as it should be? Sometimes, there is just no accounting for taste.
This article, in a slightly different version, first appeared in Middleburg Life, in the column “Then & There.” © Richard Hooper