Just how much are we missing when we breeze through a gallery on a sunny summer Saturday, pausing briefly to enjoy a colorful painting and glance at its label? What has escaped us when we grab a friend and take a selfie in front of a dramatic Dutch seascape or a monumental Rodin? Decades of museum gallery research shows the same result: most people spend less than 30 seconds in front of a work of art before moving on to the next.
But not eight-year-old Miles. Excited about this weekend's Sit, Stay, NCMA event, Miles made a great discovery recently by taking time to visit every painting in West Building.
Eight-year-old Miles takes a close look at Jan Brueghel the Elder's Harbor Scene with St. Paul’s Departure from Caesarea (1596, oil on copper, 14 1/8 x 21 1/2 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina). Nicknamed "Velvet Brueghel," the artist was famous in his day for his minute attention to detail. A haloed St. Paul is nearly lost in a sea of humanity, just like the two dogs Miles found in this scene.
A master of close looking, and a big fan of dogs, Miles was inspired by one of his favorite books, Dogs' Night, and came to the NCMA with his mom to determine just how many canines called the Museum "home."
He set himself the challenging task of counting all the dogs on view in works of art in West Building, and what he discovered shocked seasoned curators, registrars, and staff members alike, all of whom spend a good deal of time looking at art in the permanent collection.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Swan Attacked by a Dog, 1745, oil on canvas, 70 x 82 in., Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest)
When staff members learned of the interesting challenge Miles posed for himself, they ventured their own canine counts:
"Twenty," said a graphic designer.
"Fifteen at most?" asked a marketing manager.
"Thirty-eight," said a registrar, "and I didn't count Sea Dog."
"Seventy-five!" said a confident curator of European paintings.
Having found 23 dogs in just one painting alone, Miles easily had them all beat. When staff learned he had found 89 dogs in the collection, they were amazed.
Miles found 23 dogs in Philips Wouwerman's Stag Hunt in a River (circa 1650–55, oil on canvas, 53 1/8 x 76 3/4 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina).
"We were, too!," said Miles's mother, Ceanne. "We couldn't believe there were so many. We even came back on another day to double check his numbers."
Miles took great care to look at every painting as though looking for a best friend. He found dogs front and center, and dogs hidden in corners. "I’ve been coming here since I was little," Miles said. “I kept my eyes open. I didn’t want to miss any dog.”
How many dogs is Cerberus?
Cerberus detail from Venus Mourning Adonis (attributed to Benedetto Briosco, circa 1490-1515, marble, 13 x 47 in., Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina)
At first Miles counted the feisty Cerberus as three dogs, with three cold noses. But on his return to check his count, he changed it to one. Curator David Steel agrees, "I think it's one, too."
As the god of the dead, Anubis (large ears, left) weighed people's hearts to see if they could pass into the afterlife.
The NCMA's curator of Ancient Egyptian art, Caroline Rocheleau, asked whether Miles had counted the jackal-headed god Anubis as a dog.
Yes, he had, and in fact he found three in "her" gallery. That fired up Rocheleau's curiosity, and she visited the Egyptian collection to make her own discovery: "There are at least 16 dogs in the Egyptian Gallery alone!!" she reported.
"One of them we can’t see, because he’s on the back of the shabti box (shown here in the Conservation Lab). I’m counting all representations of Anubis, Duamutef, and nameless canine deities, including those drawn on Fefi’s false door (big nice hieroglyphs) and the tiny dog-headed deity holding a big knife on Golden Boy’s pectoral."
Rocheleau's tally, added to Miles's count, pushes the total dogs on view in West Building to over 100!
Page from Miles's official NCMA dog tally
And since works of art are always rotating at the NCMA, that number is likely to shift and change, to Miles's delight. He loves counting dogs.
When we caught up with Miles on his latest visit to the NCMA, we asked him, "What makes dogs so special?"
He didn't hesitate to reply. “They snuggle with you when you feel sad, and they’re cute!”
"And they love us back," his mom added. "Spending a day with dogs at the NCMA is a great experience."
Calling all dog lovers!
Join us on Sunday for Sit, Stay, NCMA! You and your pup can meet new friends, create art, play in the splash zone, and more. There will also be food trucks for dogs and humans, local vendors, and agility demonstrations. The first 500 dogs to arrive receive a free wag bag of goodies! Local rescue organization Saving Grace will have dogs for adoption.