A Capitol dome, an American flag, and a “part bichon frise and part some other things?” Such symbols of leadership and personality occupy prominent positions in House committee chairman portraits.
Committee chairman portraits in the House Collection are a visual record of who held power in the House, and how they chose to be commemorated. Portraits don’t simply show what a person looked like, but contain signifiers of the status of the individuals they depict. Depending on the subject, these signifiers can be just about anything—clothing, props, settings, the artist’s style of painting, even the subjects’ beloved pet dogs.
Dogs have long appeared in art alongside their human companions, including frescos in Pompeii and on ancient Greek pottery. By the Renaissance (13th–15th centuries) artists began to include pet dogs as symbols of fidelity, often in wedding portraits. Dogs later evolved into a status symbol: As domestic or hunting companions, dogs (and the portraits that depicted them) were affordable only to the upper class. By the 19th century, though, a dog's role—both in art and life—was primarily that of companion and friend.
In House portraits of the 20th century, dogs were both devoted companions and newsworthy presences around the Capitol. Alice and Gigi, pooches of two prominent Members of Congress, offer primary examples.
Alice co-stars in Washington Representative Tom Foley’s Committee on Agriculture chairman portrait. Foley’s pose and the setting of the portrait align with traditional standards of portraiture. Foley stands in an interior setting, which, although non-specific, has the look of a Capitol office. The “column-and-swag” convention—a curtain and architectural column in the background, commonly added to define space in portraits from the 18th century forward—is observed. Other details drill down to more specific information about Foley, and what was important to his House career. Grapes, apples, and wheat—agricultural products of the district that he represented—appear as part of the mantle carving behind him. The upholstery pattern of the chair on which he rests his hand includes the silhouette of the House mace and part of the seal of the Speaker of the House, alluding to his later service in that role.
Seated beside Foley, Alice helps to make this official work a more personal one, speaking to the Congressman's day-to-day routine in the House. Foley rescued the Belgian shepherd from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, where she had been left unclaimed in an animal holding area. From that time forward, Foley took advantage of the congressional perquisite that Members may bring their dogs to work, and Alice was a fixture in his offices. Alice’s ubiquity in the Capitol made her one of the most notable office dogs of the period.
In 1988, the dog’s fourteenth year on the Hill, the Seattle Times noted that “Alice generally lounges in a carpeted corridor outside her master’s office, calmly surveying the legs of Congressmen, aides, lobbyists, tourists and reporters passing by.” But she stole the spotlight on occasion. In 1985, for example, when Foley was working on the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction plan, she moseyed into a televised press conference, and Foley “sheepishly introduced her.” The bill’s co-sponsor, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, then quipped, “She’s the only one that understands this thing.” Alice’s famously friendly face was also part of Foley's re-election campaign. She appeared in commercials, accompanied by the line, “In the place where the action is, Alice is clearly Washington’s top dog.”
Tom Lantos’s Committee on International Relations portrait takes a slightly different approach to portraiture with canine companions. Seated and smiling, with his dog Gigi in his lap, Lantos projects a kindly, relaxed image through an informal pose. Behind them are emblems of Lantos’s life and work as chairman. The portrait of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg at the upper left honors his role as a hero of the Holocaust, and in saving Lantos’s life during World War II. The map of the world behind him references the work of his committee.
Gigi—“part bichon frise and part some other things” —was, like Alice, a familiar face around the House, and played a role in her human’s work as well. Lantos was committed to animal rights and was a chairman of the Congressional Friends of Animals, an animal rights caucus. Gigi did not sit idly by while Lantos worked for animal rights, though. In 1996, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, she followed in the footsteps of other dogs in politics, serving as “honorary chairdog” of the annual Washington Humane Society’s “Bark Ball.” Previous presiding pets include Socks, President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clintons’ cat, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole’s dog. As an alumna of the Humane Society, this role was particularly meaningful for Gigi.
These two rescued dogs making an appearance in their humans’ committee chairman portraits take their place in several time honored traditions: the valued companion long depicted in portraiture, and the press-courting Capitol publicity hound. And as President Harry Truman's oft-quoted remark states: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.
Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, May 30, 1996; The Spokesman-Review, January 8, 1986; Shearer West, Portraiture, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004).Follow @USHouseHistory