About a hundred years before dogs learned how to play poker, they were playing piano.
In Phillip Reinagle’s enigmatic 1805 painting “Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog,” the solemn spaniel at the keyboard anticipated by almost a century the vogue for an odd subspecies of art: realistically rendered animals engaged in human behavior, popularized in the early 1900s by Cassius Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker.”
But where the Coolidge cardsharps are simply kitschy fun, Reinagle’s bit of anthropomorphic nonsense might have been making a serious point.
The Scottish-born Reinagle came to London as an artist’s apprentice in 1763. He lived in the time of the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, when Europe’s great thinkers and artists strove to ennoble the “common man” through universal education and social equality. This had a democratizing effect on music, long the province of the nobility and the clergy.
Good music suddenly belonged to all. Sprawling “pleasure gardens” were built to accommodate public concerts, and impresarios vied for paying customers by engaging star performers. Especially popular were child prodigies. Then, as now, children who could inexplicably write and play music like an adult fascinated audiences. Wolfgang Mozart—with his father, Leopold Mozart, spurring him on and managing his career—was the most famous of these prodigies, but there were several other wunderkinds attracting curiosity seekers throughout 18th-century Europe.
One such child was William Crotch, son of an English carpenter. In 1777, the 2-year-old stunned his parents by playing an original arrangement of “God Save the King” on the family organ. The boy’s fame spread, and by age 4 he was giving recitals of his own compositions. Reinagle, by this time an established portraitist, undoubtedly knew of Crotch and perhaps even heard him play.
The painter came from a musical family. His father was a master trumpeter who for many years was employed by none other than King George III. Reinagle’s three brothers were also professional musicians. The most famous of them, Alexander Reinagle, emigrated to Philadelphia and became one of America’s first composers of note. So, there’s no doubt that Phillip Reinagle was keenly aware of the musical currents of his time. And contemporary accounts indicate he was a bit of a snob, with strong ideas about the place of art and music in society.
Was his “Portrait of an Extraordinary Musical Dog” a satiric broadside aimed at parents like Leopold Mozart and the elder Crotch, who were criticized for exhibiting their children as though they were circus dogs?
The smoking gun might be in the painting itself. The sheet music on the piano is “God Save the King,” the tune that made William Crotch famous.