Woodmere Art Museum’s ‘Elisabeth Osborne: Animal Paintings and Watercolors’

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Can there be dog days in winter? So it seems. Over at PAFA, musician/filmmaker/artist Nick Cave’s found-object dog sculptures join a pack of canine images from earlier times. But the beasts are a little quieter at the Woodmere Art Museum, where Elizabeth Osborne: Animal Paintings and Watercolors takes a deeply personal look at the animals in the Philadelphia-based artist’s life.

Osborne's 2016-17 oil painting "Doggie Daycare" holds unexpected power. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Janice Gordon)

Many of us take photos of our pets or those of our friends. Osborne records them too, but her record comes via a painterly eye. She looks at and into them seriously and deeply, embracing and expanding their presence. 

From Osborne’s large and career-long body of animal portraits, Woodmere assistant curator Rachel McCay has drawn 18 of these figurative works to mount an intimate and glowing exhibition. 

The artist’s ventures into animal portraiture might seem surprising to those who know Osborne for her abstractions. But it’s actually a continuation of her practice begun in student days. In the 1950s – when she was studying at PAFA – she won the annual Packard Prize, bestowed for life studies of animals at the Philadelphia Zoo. Though they have not been generally on display, her animal drawings have been an ongoing part of her work ever since.

"A landscape of peace"

The Woodmere exhibition includes two types of Osborne’s work. Twelve of the offerings are smaller, straightforward studies – watercolors, pen-and-ink, charcoal – filled with realistic detail. But her larger oils feature the glowing fields of color and abstraction for which Osborne is best known.

In her oils, there are sections of translucent, sometimes morphing colors that at first view have a monumental quality. A closer look reveals, as always, Osborne’s skillful, soulful, subtle variations in tone and texture.

Three of these paintings are particularly resonant. “Doggie Daycare” (2016-17) takes an everyday sight – dogs in a pet care facility window – and imbues it with heft, light and presence. There are sheer blocks of vibrant color, except for one spot where Osborne uses impasto to create the coat of a small white dog. This detail – telling in its simplicity – holds unexpected power.

Osborne's
Osborne's "Untitled (Sleeping Dogs)," (2016) is one of the show's highlights. (Image courtesy of the artist and Locks Gallery, Philadelphia)

In “Jasper on Steps” (2015), a small black dog stands in deep shadow at the top of a staircase. He peers straight out, the only animal in the show that makes direct contact with the observer. The portrait unexpectedly carries the directness and weight of the evocative and mysterious figures in Osborne’s 1960s “door paintings,” that were the centerpiece of her 2016 solo exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum.

In another large work, “Midnight” (2016), Osborne juxtaposes bands, blotches and boxes of changing color with the serene elegance of a large black dog. The artist creates action and tension in the work, and yet it retains a sense of peace. Here, too, a slight impasto that defines the dog’s coat marks the sole texture in a luminous plane.

As well as structural flow, the artist creates movement in the emotional content of these works. Especially looking at her smaller intimate drawings, what at first seems simple becomes quite moving. In the beautiful “Untitled (Sleeping Dogs)” – an exhibition highlight – Osborne’s mastery of fluid watercolors and the sweep of charcoal portrays two animals curled around one another, the slopes of their backs and haunches creating a landscape of peace.

Extracting petness

Osborne says, “When you work with animals or pets, you have to be careful that it doesn’t get sentimental or kind of cute. I try to avoid that.” And she does. There is nothing trite here. Her powers of observation and technical mastery easily convey depth, especially in the later works that carry the weight of a lifetime of artistic practice.

The artist not only evokes emotion in the viewer – what we feel when we see or interact with pets. She also palpably conveys the essence of these animals, as well as a fleeting sense of the awareness they might have of themselves.

On opening day, several young visitors entered the room, looked quickly about them and gave a thumbs-up. “Wow!” they said, as they darted around the gallery with enthusiasm. It was a response matched – with more decorum and reserve – by the adult visitors as well.

At Woodmere, the exhibition gallery might be small and the works few, but Osborne’s aura and impact are large indeed. 

Our readers respond

Margaret Darby

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on January 17, 2018

Very nice description of the exhibit. I particularly liked the sentence that contained the phrase: "Osborne juxtaposes bands, blotches, and boxes of changing color with the serene elegance of a large black dog." Thank you.

Colby Halloran

of Ann Arbor, MI on January 17, 2018

I thoroughly enjoy BSR, especially the reviews by Gail Obenreder. She brings me right into the venue — museum, gallery, concert hall — and I feel like jumping on a plane to come to Philly. (I live in Michigan.) I always learn something new from Ms. Obenreder. I trust her sensibility and intelligence completely. Nice feeling. If I were a painter or musician or actor, I'd hope that my work was being reviewed by Gail. She's fair and she's smart.

Editor's Response

Thanks for your kind (and accurate) words. I concur!

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