William Zimmer essay on Linda Holt’s paintings

Linda Holt’s aim is to be a top dog painter and it’s likely that in America, where the poker playing dog is king, she has the field all to herself—at least where dog likenesses that are also art is concerned.
In the history of dog painting only one American, a woman in the early 20th century named Maud Earl, has made the history books. She received academic training from her father and took into account the animal’s skeletal structure. It is significant that she was half British–for over there dog painting is a serious genre. The king of dog painters, the Victorian Edwin Henry Landseer, anthropomorphized his subjects. Holt, too, has a talent for making dogs seem all too human.

Holt studied painting at the University of Pennsylvania where her primary instructors were Alex Katz and Neil Welliver. It’s quite transparent what these artists contributed to Holt’s art; above all a sense of boldness. Her major paintings are insistently frontal and her images are usually outsized, larger than life. These traits echo Katz, the essence of places like the New York art world and Eastern Long Island is embodied in larger than life heads of the major players.

Welliver’s decisiveness is embodied in the stark landscape of rural Maine; every detail of his intricate compositions stands out clearly. Holt’s first exhibited paintings reveal both her landscape training and an innate sense of glamour. She painted Japanese carp, whose beauty might be only skin-deep. They’re beautiful as they glide through the water, and sometimes the watery environment replete with water lilies takes over as the real subject. But this surface beauty conceals what conservationists don’t like about carp; they are bottom feeders that dirty the water. The negatives are visually absent from Holt’s paintings. What we have is a decorative, semi-exotic sort of beauty strengthened by Holt’s mastery of painterly basics like perspective and foreshortening. But it’s a beauty that has an edge to it because of the animal qualities it masks. Likewise, a kind of edginess amid ostensible innocence is a quality of her best dog paintings.

As Holt describes it, her conversion to painting dogs was spontaneous, the result of her glancing at her own two cocker spaniels one day and noticing, through a painter’s eye, how “funny” their expressions were, especially their eyes. The artistic decisions that Holt made putting her dogs on canvas are striking. In her best paintings the image is only the head looming large; the background is often pure white (although in the painting titled “Tub” the white is the porcelain environment where her two dogs stand. It’s where their baths are given, but the two dogs are oddly placid.

The expressions, possibly with a little anthropomorphism at work, are the major force in the paintings featuring her own dogs. Benign expressions do dominate Holt’s dog oeuvre to date, but being human the viewer will gravitate to paintings featuring a greater or lesser degree of what we would interpret as anger. These flashy attitudes are more like life. Where these cockers, (originally bred as hunters), have quarry in their mouths, Holt only paints a piece of it, to not diminish the visual strength of the face.

Holt rightly believes that commissions are the best route to take, and here concessions must be made. She must put in squares of tile or the stripes of a sofa–these factors tie the owner to the dog. But Holt has been called the John Singer Sargent of dog painting. Sargent subsisted largely on commissions; he knew he had to please his sitters yet his own attitudes still came through. Such is Linda Holt’s challenge. Then dog painting in America will have its day.

William Zimmer
New York City


art inspiration potpourri

Drawing is taking a line for a walk  –Paul Klee

Distractions preoccupied me this month  –  one somber,  one delightful – you’ll soon read about them.   Here goes,  starting with the somber one  :  we Bostonians lost a dear friend and prolific artist,  Lucette White.   Totally unexpected.    She was 82,  full of life and vigor right up to the end when,  after a brief illness,  an infection took her.    We’re all still in shock.

Loss of someone becomes a wake-up call for us to embrace our friends and family,  make time for them,  listen to them.    Promise you’ll never,  ever send a sympathy card!   Family members long for something personal and warm and alive.   Instead,  write a heartfelt letter –  handwritten is best even in your scraggily script  –   that celebrates your relationship with that person.       I learned this when I lost my Dad in 2001.    My Mother and I yearned for people’s memories of him,   how they were touched by him.  Our favorite was an hilarious comment from his best friend,  and fellow P-47 fighter pilot,  Smitty,  and  I quote,  We’re still the best goddam fighter pilots in the Air Force.    How that made us roar,  for years!

The biggest news of the month is that I became engaged to the most wonderful and amazing man!   Now it’s fun to share it with everyone,   as I sign off with the happiest of distractions for April 2014.

washington DC art museum musings

When you only have an afternoon to fit in as many museums as you can in Washington DC,  it helps to stay in a hotel near the White House and have great walking shoes.  Even with the appropriate shoes,  a five mile walk  – a distance carefully calculated only after the fact (thank goodness)  –  was a challenge on cement.  Here’s what we were able to fit in:

Lunch at the Pavilion Café, National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden   A delightful glass enclosed art nouveau building on the National Mall.  Well worth a return visit during warmer months where sitting in the grass among  Oldenburg’s Typewriter Eraser,  Lichtenstein’s House,  and listening to a jazz concert would delight anyone.  This time of year,  a view of an active ice skating rink opposite the restaurant provided great dining entertainment.

The Hirshhorn Museum  Gravity’s Edge,  artworks from 1959-1978  showing shifts in color and abstraction.  Some of my favorite images were Lynda Benglis’ corner piece and some of Paul Jenkins’ transparency work.

The National Portrait Gallery  A real gem of a museum.   Dancing the Dream,  images of American choreographers and performers from Ginger Rogers to Beyonce was mesmerizing.  The Kogod Courtyard was a breathtaking light-filled space with an elegant glass canopy.   All I needed was more time to soak it all in.   Much more to see in this most amazing museum.   And free to the public as are all the Smithsonian museums.  (Yay!)

Le Pain Quotidien  An indirect art-related find was this charming restaurant.   Fresh,  seasonal,  organic food to nourish and restore our bodies.     So said their postcard,  and they really lived up to it.  Their breakfast was a fabulous start to the day.  How soon can we get one in Boston…?!

anatomy of a koi painting commission

It’s always a joy to work with a new client who has specific ideas about what they envision in a future painting  adorning their wall.  In this particular instance, it was the last piece of an elaborate puzzle in a complete renovation of a most charming beach home on Boston’s North Shore.  As a focal point in the living room/dining room area,  the painting would live right smack in the heart of the house.

Together we all arrived at a size  –  30×30 inches –  that would work best in the space.   A careful look at many details in my koi painting portfolio then led us to include a combination of  the following key elements:  craggy rock edge,  waterfall, background water lilies,  3-5 koi fish teeming in water.


It was a fun challenge to fit everything in.  I began with a simple sketch.  Once approved,  I had the green light to proceed with painting it.  I’m happy to say it was just completed on Friday.  All of us who have seen it – including me – are delighted with the results.


nourishing your art spirit

We’re all natural artists. That is, until some sort of authority, most likely an adult, tells us that we can’t draw, or we can’t paint — because we have no talent. That’s when we stop trusting our intuition and become influenced by outside sources. I think this drives many a natural artist underground. So far underground, that whatever creative spark was there becomes extinguished forever.

I’d like to share an amusing story about me. Freshman year in college,   I entered a beginning drawing class with great enthusiasm. After all, I was an art major. (It’s important to mention that this course was taught by my advisor because it made what happened all the more compelling.) We students had gone outside to draw for the majority of our 3 hour class. Near the end of the period,  we returned to mount all of our work on the wall for a critique. My advisor,  the professor, talked about everyone else’s work but mine. I was crestfallen. And too shy at that point to say anything about it.  So, the next time we went outside to draw, I decided to go to the cafeteria for lunch instead… Why bother?

Now comes the amusing part. I was uncomfortable with the drawing materials at first. It took awhile for me to regain my motivation, my passion and to develop facility with line. I then took advanced drawing,  followed by an independent study in drawing which I adored. After graduation,  while in graduate school, that same professor invited me back to his class as a guest speaker. How about that?   Finally he noticed me!

Take your natural talent and feed it.  Wonderful things can happen.