Impressionist & Modern Art

Powerful Tamayo Dog Painting, Last in Private Hands, Comes to Auction

By James Oles

In a distinguished collection since 1993, Rufino Tamayo’s  Dog Howling at the Moon is the last picture of a dog from the artist’s Animal series in private hands; all others reside in museum collections. The painting will be offered in Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale (14 May, New York) and is the first Latin American painting to travel to Hong Kong as part of a Sotheby’s highlights exhibition. Discover how Tamayo took inspiration from Picasso, Miró and more artists to create a portrait of a dog that is powerful and political.

Rufino Tamayo spent his life filtering European modernism through his own Mexican identity. He made a career of not being political, setting himself in opposition to the didactic public murals and ideological discourse of his contemporaries, particularly Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. His paintings, he argued, were “purer,” generally engaging with timeless universal themes. In 1949, in a tersely worded artistic statement, he declared, “Painting is not literature, or journalism, or demagogy. Painting is… the wonderful combination of poetry, which bears the message, and visual qualities, which transmit that meaning.”1


However, the artist’s work of the early 1940s cannot be understood without reference to World War II, a time of “great intensity,” as he said in a later interview.2 In this period, while based primarily in New York, he created a series of anxious and unsettling pictures in which animals, particularly howling and barking dogs, serve as overt metaphors for conflict. This group of paintings was directly inspired by Picasso’s Guernica (1937), a denunciation of the bombing of civilians during the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, probably on more than one occasion, Tamayo saw and studied Picasso’s mural-sized canvas in exhibitions in New York, where it had been sent for safekeeping. Guernica famously includes two prominent animals – a threatening bull and a screaming horse. Tamayo’s paintings, however, were far more electric in their color range than Guernica’s newspaper-like monochrome; in addition, as Robert Goldwater noted early on, Tamayo’s animals were far more aggressive: “They express a spirit of revolt rather than the passive anguish Picasso depicted.”

In Dog Howling at the Moon (1942), the animal raises its head towards a moon in eclipse, set against a deep blue night sky. The veins of the dog’s throat seem to burst with energy, as the howl travels from his broad chest to the slash of white teeth in his open mouth. As in other works in this series showing dogs – most importantly Animals (1941), now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York – dry meatless bones appear in the foreground. The dark green wall to the right reinforces our sense that the dog is outside, unprotected, and perhaps unheard, as were so many voices in that terrible year of the Second World War, when democracy and freedom seemed irrevocably eclipsed by fascist victories.

[Tamayo’s animals] express a spirit of revolt rather than the passive anguish Picasso depicted.

Tamayo’s painting recalls – and perhaps cites – Joan Miró’s Dog Barking at the Moon (1926; Philadelphia Museum of Art), which in the early 1940s was on display at the Gallery of Living Art in New York, where Tamayo would have easily encountered it. Here, however, the artist replaces surrealist playfulness with something more sinister. Closer in date to Tamayo’s howling dog is Jackson Pollock’s equally fierce The She-Wolf (1943; MoMA). But whereas Pollock turned to Classical history (the title refers to the legendary wolf who suckled the founders of Rome), Tamayo’s references are drawn from Mexico’s pre-Columbian heritage. The seated pose, taught rib-revealing skin, and open mouth – as well as the loud red color – are all features found on the ceramic figures from tombs in Colima showing the xoloitzcuintli (a local hairless breed); such sculptures were widely collected in both the United States and Mexico. But Colima dogs rarely look up; the specific position of the head more closely resembles effigies of seated howling coyotes from Gulf Coast Mexico. 

The references in Tamayo’s animal paintings are not archaeological, or even overtly nationalist. They fit within a broader narrative in which diverse artists across the hemisphere consciously sought to construct a distinctly American Modernism, informed equally by the local and the international – along with Pollock, Barnett Newman, Wifredo Lam and Maria Martins are just a few of the many proponents of this continental impulse. 

Dog Howling at the Moon, the last major work from Tamayo’s series of animal paintings in private hands, was first acquired by Hollywood actress Evelyn Keyes from the Galería de Arte Mexicano, run by Inés Amor, then the leading dealer in Mexico City. It was once owned by Peter G. Wray, who amassed one of the most important collections of pre-Columbian art in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s. Wray surely appreciated the allusions to ancient Colima and Veracruz still apparent in this powerful image. 

James Oles is a Senior Lecturer at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.


1. Rufino Tamayo, “Unas palabras de Rufino Tamayo,” Espacios (June 1949), cited in Rufino Tamayo: Pinturas (Madrid: Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 1988), p. 35.  
2. Ingrid Suckaer, Rufino Tamayo: Aproximaciones (Mexico City: Editorial Praxis, 2000), p. 181.  
3. Robert Goldwater, Rufino Tamayo (New York: Quadrangle Press, 1947), p. 27.  

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