In my favorite photo of Charley, she is gazing into the distance, eyes full of awe, alone among the candy-colored banners of a deserted Times Square. It was taken in the summer of 2020, when the busiest streets of New York were eerily empty. You might think that Charley had survived the apocalypse, and that she was ready—her ears pushed confidently back—to take on whatever challenges come with being the last beagle on earth. She seems to be looking just over the viewer’s shoulder; the photographer—my ex-boyfriend—must have crouched down on the sidewalk to capture her at eye-level. I liked the photo so much that I got it printed out and framed.
In my least favorite photo of Charley—taken a year and a half later, before I left our apartment for the last time—her eyes are downcast; her tail is drooping. Half of her body is obscured by shadow. Her ears are pushed forward over her face, like a nervous middle-schooler trying to hide behind her hair. The fur around the edges of her ears has faded from chestnut to white. She looks betrayed. She looks reproachful. She looks depressed.
Or maybe she was hungry. Am I projecting my own feelings onto an animal whose look of longing might just as easily have been about the chicken bone that got away? How much do we impose our complicated human emotions onto images of dogs?
I thought about these questions at the Wallace Collection’s new exhibit “Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney” in London (where I now live), as I took in paintings of a poodle dressed up as a judge and of a toy Havanese, a pink ribbon in its fur and a guilty expression on its face, perched “as though seeking forgiveness” (according to the wall text) beside a chewed-up shoe.
On the surface, the show—which features such curiosities as a ruby-encrusted Faberge replica (on loan from His Majesty) of a favorite royal dog; a semi-erotic 1st-century statue of a greyhound nibbling her mate’s ear; and a Leonardo da Vinci study of a paw—is intended as a charming diversion, a celebration of humans’ special bond with our canine companions. The Evening Standard described it as “very jolly,” though a cranky Guardian reviewer (clearly a cat person) complained that the collection was pandering to dog parents. “To love this exhibition,” he wrote “you need to…own a dog.”
I disagree. I—only a former dog step-parent—loved it. And not, as the Guardian suggested, for the dumb pleasure of seeing a 19th century terrier dressed up in a Scottish bonnet.
It was when I reached the room on grief that I knew I would stay until the museum closed. It helped me grapple with a question I’d been struggling with for months: Was I crazy to mourn a dog that was still alive? A dog that—judging by my ex’s Strava locations—had, until recently, been living just a few miles away?
“Portraits of Dogs” attests to the poignant, creative and sometimes disturbing ways that we have grieved dogs, from taxidermy to modern art. I saw the stuffed remains of a Maltese terrier named Minna which have, since 1883, been resting in an elaborate cabinet, alongside etchings of castles and flowers. I read Lord Byron’s lyrical epitaph to his beloved Newfoundland, Boatswain. Days later, I am still haunted by Lucian Freud’s painting of his late whippet’s gravestone—the dog’s name (Pluto) inscribed in childlike block letters that look, somehow, both freshly-carved and already-fading. I saw intricate Victorian brooches adorned with portraits of dogs’ faces and holding locks of their hair.
I understand the impulse to preserve a dog’s fur. When I lived with Charley, her constant shedding was a source of irritation. Her hairs were prone to clogging the vacuum cleaner and lodging themselves in the stitches of my sweaters (where they would inevitably pass undetected until some crucial moment). When I finally brought myself to unpack the suitcase I’d grabbed on my way out, a flurry of Charley hairs flew out. I gathered up my clothes and stuffed them back in my bag.
My grief was complicated: In the months after my breakup, I wasn’t only mourning Charley’s absence in my life. I was also worrying about my absence in hers. I scrutinized her appearances on my ex’s Instagram: Was her fur graying at a faster rate than before? Did she look sad? (Beagles, with their mournful eyes and droopy ears, almost always look sad.) What was I looking for, anyway? Was I hoping for signs that she missed me? Or did I want affirmation that she was OK?
I was hardly alone, I learned at the Wallace Collection, in wondering how my dog would fare without me. In a melodramatic painting called “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” a grief-stricken collie throws itself on the coffin of its master. After King Edward VII died in 1910—leaving behind his favorite dog, Caesar—a popular story book called Where’s Master, attributed to Caesar, was published.
When I got home, I looked the book up online, and was happy to find it’s in the public domain. I read about Caesar roaming the palace halls, searching for Edward and reminiscing about how only the king knew just how to tickle his chin. “Where’s Master?” wails the inconsolable terrier. “I’ve been hunting for him high and low for days.” When he finally grasps that Edward is gone, his grief tips over into suicidal ideation. “I can’t find Master anywhere, and I’m so lonely…I wish so much that I could die too.”
Reading these morbid, self-flattering musings brought me back to my original question: Do we project onto our pets too much? Probably. But who can resist? Where’s Master sold over 100,000 copies.
It’s been over a year since I last saw Charley. I did not fight for custody, because she was my ex’s before she was mine and because sharing a dog with one’s ex—however common this may be—strikes me as insane. When I drop a crumb of food while cooking, I no longer listen for the pitter-patter of paws; I clean it up myself.
I sometimes see Charley in my dreams. In one, I suddenly remember that she hasn’t been fed in weeks; I run to the place where her kibble should be, but find only a jar of Twizzlers. In another, I discover that the dog I thought was Charley is really an imposter, “Charlay.”
After the breakup, my ex sent the framed photo of Times Square Charley back to me. I didn’t want to look at it, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Now it lives in my dad’s basement, alongside some old books and clothes.
So many of the images at the Wallace Collection celebrate dogs’ loyalty to us—their desire to please us with their hunting prowess, their tricks, or just their steady company. Maybe it’s because we fetishize their fidelity and their dependence that my guilt over leaving Charley was so intense.
A third photo of Charley: August 2020. I had only known her for a few months; I was just then falling in love. I am leaning over her on the couch, hugging her. Our noses are almost pressed together. It isn’t a particularly flattering photo of me—my hair is frizzy, my eyes closed; my bra strap is showing, and not in a sexy way—but I added it to my post-breakup Hinge profile.
Was this an act of self-sabotage? (“Is that your dog?” “No, my ex’s” was a bit of a conversation-killer.) A pointless show of loyalty? As my grief peaked, my profile read like a tribute to Charley. I listed “medium-sized dogs” as one of my primary interests. At one point, the algorithm showed me only pictures of men with dogs.
I must have toned it down eventually, because my new boyfriend is not a dog person. At least, he wasn’t when we matched. After dragging him to CitiPups and watching him slowly bond with a French bulldog, I have hope.