madeline falk pet portraits

Now into my 20th year of painting dogs, cats, and horses, I’ll admit I have a fondness for painting dogs. I live and work in Norfolk, Connecticut with four dogs of my own, along with my husband Jon, who is also an artist.

I began painting dog portraits in 1989 in Washington, D.C. I began my formal training in painting at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, and more recently, I had the privilege of studying with the late Frank Mason of the Art Students League.

Inspired by the classical paintings of the 18th and 19th Century, I approach every painting informed by the old masters. Among my favorites are Sir Edwin Landseer and Rosa Bonheur, whose style evokes a soulful stillness.  My emphasis is on light, atmosphere, and lush brush strokes, while paying careful attention to drawing and composition.

In the years of painting fine animal portraits, I have shown in many national exhibitions. This year, 2010, I was the first place winner of the painting category at “The Art Show at the Dog Show” — the nations only juried art exhibition devoted to canine art.  My work is included in the permanent collection of the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. and many private collections throught out the country.

My work has also been published in “Equine Images” and “Spur Magazine.”

Norfolk Canine Classicist

By: Tamara Tragakiss

One of the things that sets Madeline Falk’s dog paintings apart from those of her contemporaries is the panels she uses-masonite board primed with an 18th-century formula, which, the artists says, “allows for exquisite detail and luminosity.”

“It’s an arduous task, but there’s nothing which compares to it,” said Ms. Falk. The effect is a sort of timelessness, and each oil on panel painting looks equally at home in a plain, modern frame or set within an ornately carved and gilded one.

Ms. Falk said she is heavily influenced by the classicists of the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular, Sir Edwin Landseer, a romanticist, and the French realist Rosa Bonheur, who painted animals.

But the magic that no training or artistic influence can impart is derived from Ms. Falk’s love and knowledge of her subject. The authenticity she captures is the essence of a dog’s personality-the slight insouciance of a toy poodle, the languidness of a greyhound in repose, the sad loyalty in a golden retriever’s eyes or the intense focus of a border collie. All the while, she neatly circumvents the one danger in her field, sentimentality.

At her home and studio in Norfolk, which she shares with her long-term inamorato and fellow artist, Jon Riedeman, Ms. Falk talks about her growth as a painter, about her chosen field of pet portraiture and about her dogs.

At the moment, four of them live with Ms. Falk and Mr. Riedeman: two maturing shepherd mixes, a dog they are keeping for a friend, and a rescue puppy with a sprouting lion’s mane, whom they’ve named Cojo. The animals have free access to the furniture as well as assorted dog beds around the home and attached studio. It is remarkably quiet, though, except for the occasional outburst from Cojo, who’s “insecure.” Since completing her formal training in painting at the Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington, D.C., Ms. Falk’s style has grown more traditional and her subject more focused.

In 1989, her senior thesis show was on equine art, and she remarked, “I didn’t realize where I was going to go. At that point I was pretty abstract.” She gestured toward one of her earliest paintings, a mixed media interpretation of a horse, and said, “In art school, they give you free rein.” Somewhat directionless, she stayed in Washington for a time, but found herself waitressing instead of painting.

She came home to New Milford, where she had grown up and where her parents still live, and began taking workshops at the Washington Art Association.

“I realized there’s a great art community here,” she said. Twelve years ago, she moved to Norfolk and met the painter Arden Mason, who would be the catalyst for her professional turning point.

Mr. Mason encouraged Ms. Falk to study with his father, the acclaimed portrait and landscape artist Frank Mason, at The Art Students League of New York. From him, she learned the technique of painting in harmony. Creating harmony in one’s painting, she explained, “prevents the colors from becoming splashy. … Not any one color is going to jump out. Unless I want it to.” There is a moment of puzzled silence in the room.

“Wait there,” Ms. Falk said before disappearing into her studio. She returned with a paint box, which is used as her palette and is different from an ordinary painter’s palette because its color display is so scientifically organized. The underside of the box’s lid is lined with shelves and here the paints are generously spread out in a tonal arrangement of lights to darks.

“It’s kind of a secret, so you can’t put all the details [in the paper],” she said only half-jokingly.

“Painting and music have a lot of similarities,” the artist said. “You put together your lightest lights, your darkest darks. You harmonize up and down, so it’s like mixing notes … with steps of color substitutes. It’s so exciting because there’s endless ranges and tonal qualities … That’s the technique. Once you know that, you get to express yourself.” Harmonizing is hardly a new idea. It was, in fact, a minor movement in American art, known as tonalism, that thrived briefly at the end of the 19th century at the Lyme Art Colony in Connecticut and elsewhere. Among its believers was the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler and Henry Ward Ranger, the latter describing tonalism as “harmonious modulations of color.”

One student of Whistler’s, who especially embraced the concept of harmony, was Frank DuMond. This painter, renown for his style of luminous impressionism, taught Frank Mason, Ms. Falk’s instructor.

Applying this undertone, this mist of color and transparency, is the harmony that gives Ms. Falk’s subjects such a classical look. But also, the richly hued colors, the attention to light and the soft, almost impressionistic brush strokes she employs reinforce the style.

The subject matter itself, dogs, has had a long history in classical painting, Ms. Falk pointed out. Though its heyday occurred during the reign of Queen Victoria, who especially loved to have her beloved pets immortalized in pictures, pet portraiture is still popular today.

Of all the animals Ms. Falk paints, she’s now honed in on dogs “because I love them so much more, because of their different sizes, their shapes-and, you can’t get a horse to sit. Compositionally, the dogs are more interesting.”

Her commissioned portraits are not modestly priced. “It’s a lavish thing to do, but I think everybody should,” the artist proclaimed. What better way to keep a pet’s memory alive long after it has have passed away? Though Ms. Falk hopes that her dog paintings will appeal to a mass audience “that’s greater than just people that have dogs,” she admitted that her work may never be recognized-or even looked at-by the wider art world, which tends to eschew animal portraits put forth by non-conceptual artists, and Ms. Falk is not likely to dice up one her dogs and display him in a tank of formaldehyde, à la Damien Hirst. So, she would consider it a major achievement to gain recognition in her field.

She already has been recognized. She placed first in oil painting at a nationally juried show, Equine Art in Atlanta, several years ago, and, this year, she was selected to be among the artists at the only nationally juried canine exhibition, The Art Show at the Dog Show, in Wichita, Kan.

Ms. Falk’s work is currently on display, and for sale, at the Norfolk Library, which is showing 30 oil paintings of dogs, mostly, and some landscapes and other animals. Titled works, such as “Sloughi Head Study,” “Pug on a Pillow” and “Goo,” with breeds that run the gamut from Norwegian elkhounds to Chihuahuas, hang in harmony within the context of the library’s gracious, classical architecture.

The exhibit runs through October during regular library hours. For information, the artist may be reached at 860-542-6929. Her Web site is

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