Capturing the essence of puppyhood

They say actors should never act with children or animals. Similarly, it is probably inadvisable for artists to portray puppies, a regular pitfall of sentimentality. "Oh, sweet!" we involuntarily exclaim, the endearing nature of the subject upstaging serious aesthetic intention.

Yi Am (born 1499) is considered one of the important Korean painters of his time (the Early Choson Dynasty, 1392-1550). Yet there are a mere four works by him surviving today - and puppies (specifically Korean, not foreign, breeds) are his main theme. In one work, an adult dog feeds her pups. In another, two puppies chase a cat up a tree. Birds, flowers, and a spare sense of landscape are also featured in his work.

The ink-and-watercolor painting on silk shown here is listed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's handbook as "attributed to" Yi Am, a phrase that generally allows for a touch of doubt. It would not be used if there were absolute certainty about authorship. Yet the work is described by Marjorie Matthews Corr of the museum's East Asian art department as " 'typical' for this artist ... but not a 'typical' subject for other Korean artists." Yi Am's painting of the cat up a tree contains a precedent. In it, a puppy has a feather in its mouth.

The Philadelphia painting has undoubted charm and humor. But it goes further. It conveys the essence of puppyhood. The animal is tellingly placed in a minimal landscape setting. It is importantly in the foreground but also made small by the empty space above it. The playfulness of this robust character - or what humans see as playfulness - is wonderfully expressed by the seriousness with which the puppy carries its weightless "prey," as if a feather were the most significant trophy of the chase.

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