Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.
-- "Hamlet," Act 5, Scene I
GREENWICH, Conn. -- Consider, if you will, "A Sleeping Dog Beside a Terracotta Jug, a Basket, a Pile of Kindling Wood," dated 1650. (The conscientious title overlooks a pair of wooden clogs and the fact that the little fellow has curled up on a sideboard or a shelf next to a bare wall.) On May 25, 2005, at Christie's in New York, the painting set a world auction record for Gerrit Dou, renowned among art historians as the first pupil of the great Rembrandt. The sale catalog ran to some 130 lots, which fetched a princely total of $17 million. The estimate on this tiny masterpiece -- a mere 6 inches by 8 inches -- was $2 million to $3 million, against a hammer price of nearly $5 million, or better than $90,000 per square inch, and worth every penny.
The soft-to-bristly textures of the fur, the drowsy eyes (not quite shut), the highlights on the jug, every fleck of dry bark on the twigs: All are captured with a clarity and inner radiance far surpassing photographic precision. It would be hard to refute John Smith, the author of a series of remarkable catalogues raisonnés of Dutch painting, who declared in 1834, "It is impossible for painting to be carried to higher perfection than that displayed in this exquisite little picture."
Hard to believe that the anonymous buyer has let his new puppy out so soon, but sure enough, there he is, snoozing at the entrance of "Best in Show: The Dog in Art From the Renaissance to Today," an exhibition whose subject disarms criticism even as it meets stellar critical standards. Organized by the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, in Greenwich, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, it hangs in Connecticut through Aug. 27, whereupon it moves on to Texas (Oct. 1-Jan. 1, 2007).
The collaboration of institutions comes as rather a surprise, the Bruce being a suburban arts-and-sciences boutique catering in large part to school groups, while the MFAH is the Lone Star Metropolitan. But under the stewardship of the urbane Peter C. Sutton, a splendidly connected director of impeccable academic credentials, the Bruce -- with nothing to loan -- has been scoring quite a few coups of late. (A fall show of the 17th-century master Jan van der Heyden, inventor of the cityscape, is a joint project with the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.) For "Best in Show," Mr. Sutton has teamed up with Edgar Peters Bowron, Audrey Jones Beck Curator of European Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the eminent art historian Robert Rosenblum, whose book "The Dog in Art From Rococo to Post-Modernism" (1988) inspired this new take on the subject.
The 35-item checklist for Greenwich will double in size for Houston, but do not suppose that the current edition is dominated by also-rans. Apart from the Dou, there are important loans from the world's foremost collections. From the Louvre comes Jean-Baptiste Oudry's "Dog With Bowl" (c. 1751), a trompe-l'oeil cover for a fireplace, showing a canine of indeterminate breed in vigilant possession of his cozy niche. A water dish of Chinese porcelain certifies his right of occupancy. The Prado has sent "Two Dogs and a Cat in a Kitchen" (c. 1630-35), by Frans Synders, the animal and still-life specialist who often collaborated with Rubens. This time, one cur stands snarling on a leg of beef, the other is wolfing a string of sausages, and the cat (eyes round, ears flat) is waiting to pounce. Luscious fruit from a basket lies scattered on the floor beside the shards of another piece of fine china. Philip IV of Spain kept this one in his private dining room.
Institutional and private lenders -- illustrious, obscure and anonymous -- have added plenty more. Proceeding alphabetically through some of the better-known artists, we find a bronze greyhound by Antoine-Louis Barye, as composed as a sphinx; a touching memorial to her German shepherd by the fashionable video artist Tracey Emin; by Thomas Gainsborough, a "portrait" (the artist's word) of a pug, escaped from the drawing room to the shade of a park; Théodore Géricault's "Head of a Bulldog," his eyes glazed and bloodshot; from the steamy Orientalist Jean-Léon Gérôme an optician's sign that anticipates visual puns à la Magritte; and Duane Hanson's seemingly embalmed "Beagle in a Basket," in polychrome polyvinyl, somehow macabre.
The list goes on. An untitled drawing in Magic Marker on orange board by Keith Haring resembles a kachina doll from the Southwest, barking on his hind legs at an approaching UFO. (Or is that a Frisbee?) David Hockney is represented by an affectionate rendering of his dachshunds. From George Stubbs, the veterinary anatomist par excellence, there's a spotted water spaniel, all fluff and muscle. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's "Portrait of the Spaniel of the Infanta Maria Josefa de Bourbón" is princess in her own right, the very picture of refinement on her gold-tasseled cushion. Andy Warhol's "Ginger" gives a homely cocker spaniel a glamorous silk-screen makeover; a William Wegman Weimaraner dresses up as Little Red Riding Hood.
And let's not overlook the three canvases by Sir Edwin Landseer, Queen Victoria's favorite painter, whose animal paintings commanded sums from the royal purse exceeding the going rates for a Michelangelo. His "Attachment" depicts a fox terrier cuddling up to the gray corpse of his master, fallen off a cliff. It strikes a mawkish chord we think of as essentially Victorian, but the canvas of a terrier harassing a hedgehog quivers with vitality.
Many entries by lesser-known hands are no less memorable, running the gamut from the purely animal to the anthropological, the sentimental to the satiric. The lineup mixes hunters with lapdogs, purebred show creatures with hapless mutts, splendid in isolation or in search -- confident or anxious -- of a rung in their household hierarchies. Some models earn their keep, some live for pleasure: Canines, like humans, may be ants or grasshoppers.
William Frank Calderon gives us a sloe-eyed borzoi lolling on furs like an Impressionist odalisque ("A Lady of Quality," 1913); Philippe Rousseau shows puppies nursing as their mother scavenges among overturned pots and pans ("Everyone for Himself," 1864). Maurizio Cattelan's "Dog Skeleton With Le Monde" (1997) makes a shockingly domestic memento mori; Albert de Balleroy's quadruple portrait "French Hounds" (c. 1860), showing the animals linked in pairs as for the hunt, seems in its way as philosophical as Giorgione's celebrated "Three Ages of Man," also known as "The Concert."
Speaking of concerts, Philip Reinagle's "Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog" (1805) immortalizes a spaniel at a keyboard before the sheet music of virtuoso variations on "God Save the King." Paws on keys, he swivels his head to face the viewer in haughty disdain. When portraits of people catch such shadings, we call them psychological.
The catalog, published by the Yale University Press, extends the horizons vastly, both in words and pictures -- among them of requested loans that were refused. It goes without saying that the exhibition -- whether in its current or its future expanded form -- does not exhaust its theme. "The proper study of mankind is man," Alexander Pope insisted. Art history partly bears him out. But as "Best in Show" attests, the poet's decree is too dogmatic. Man's best friend will have a place in the picture.