The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is one of the most prestigious dog shows in the world, attracting the best domestic and foreign canine talent. For those who are unaware, the very first show was held in Manhattan in 1877. That show was called “The First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs,” hosted by the Westminster Kennel Club. The show was staged at Gilmore’s Gardens and attracted an entry of 1,201 dogs!
The New York Bench Show of Dogs became the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, and a legacy was born. Today it is the second oldest continuously held sporting event in the United States, behind only the Kentucky Derby. What some may not realize is that woven into the legacy of Westminster is a history of art. Over the last century, art has played an important role in the development and legacy of the club.
The First Annual New York Bench Show of Dogs was so successful that it extended from a three-day show to a four-day show. The show continued to grow and attract entries from historic figures such as J. P. Morgan, The Queen of England, and General George Custer. As the show grew in size and scope, a need was created for marketing materials to promote the show.
Artwork started to become an important part of the promotion and marketing of the club. Art also helped create one-of-a-kind keepsakes for spectators to collect. In the early 1900s, artist Arthur Wardle created a series of paintings depicting the various dog breeds that were being exhibited at the show. Some of these paintings were reproduced as postcards and posters. Wardle is considered to be the most iconic animal artist of his day, with his specialty being purebred dogs.
Over the years, other artists have contributed to the artistic legacy of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In the 1930s, artist Marguerite Kirmse created a series of prints depicting various breeds, which were sold as souvenirs at the show. In the 1950s and ‘60s, artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell created several works related to the event.
In 2004, the first painting in a series by artist Misha Lenn was commissioned. Lenn is a world-renowned watercolor artist whose portfolio includes artwork for the Kentucky Derby. His style creates very colorful backdrops, with elongated, elegant strokes that bring to life the images of the seven Group winners from the previous year’s Best in Show lineup.
In 2006, Westminster’s poster art was created by legendary sports artist, Bart Forbes. Forbes has been featured in some notable publications, including Time, Sports Illustrated, and Gold Digest. He is known for his realistic, yet loosely painted, style. It is only fitting that the subject of his Westminster painting was a Sporting dog. The poster was based on the 2005 Best in Show winner, the German Shorthaired Pointer. “Carlee” is fondly remembered for her free-stack heard ‘round the world during Best in Show, and the poster art captures that infamous stack in such striking, stunning detail.
One of my favorites because it captures a moment from the show. Commissioned.
The 2009 and 2010, commemorative paintings were commissioned by artist Trish Biddle. The two pieces from Ms. Biddle brought us back in time to the “Golden Age” of New York City glamor and society. The 2009 poster featured the 2008 Best in Show winner, “Uno,” with an appearance from Westminster Kennel Club mascot “Sensation” alongside him. The 2010 poster art featured the 2009 Best in Show winner, “Stump,” cruising through Manhattan.
In 2012, Sean McCarthy became President of Westminster Kennel Club. Under McCarthy’s leadership, the club leveraged relationships he had established with two prestigious art schools, Pratt Institute and New York Academy of Art, to hold a series of competitive art contests among the students.
Westminster Kennel Club’s Public Relations Spokeswoman Gail Bisher says that holding these contests really brought the local New York City community back into the fold with the show, and created new excitement and anticipation.
Another favorite because of the detail of the breeds.
In 2019, Misha Lenn returned as the commissioned artist of Westminster Kennel Club with his unique style and vibrant colors that truly capture the glamor of New York City. Lenn has continued to be the official artist to the present day, with the latest piece featuring the 2022 Best in Show lineup in this year’s poster.
While the introduction of art to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show began over a century ago to meet the need for marketing materials, it’s critically important to note its current philanthropic role. While, to many, the posters, notecards, and other pieces serve as a keepsake from the show, the proceeds from those posters go to fund canine health initiatives.
While the introduction of art to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show began over a century ago to meet the need for marketing materials, it’s critically important to note its current philanthropic role.
One of the most notable contributions that the art associated with Westminster makes is the annual donation of the original (yes, original) commissioned poster art to the Take the Lead Foundation. For those unfamiliar with this incredible organization, Take the Lead was founded in 1993.
Its mission is to “provide direct services, support and care for all qualified participants in the sport of dogs who suffer from the devastating realities of life-threatening or terminal illnesses, and to provide temporary emergency assistance to those affected by civil disasters such as fires, floods, earthquakes and the like.”
Each year, guests of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show can visit the Take the Lead booth and purchase raffle tickets for a chance to win the original commissioned poster art.
The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show has continued to evolve and grow, with new breeds being added and new events being introduced. However, the show’s connection to art and its artistic legacy remains an important part of its history and identity. And with the 150th anniversary show quickly approaching, there is no doubt that preparation is underway to create another piece of art that will become part of the Westminster Kennel Club legacy.