Georgia O'Keeffe, doyenne of American modernist painting, spent much of her working life in and around Abiquiu, New Mexico, where she was moved to paint some of her most evocative landscapes. But in her time off from painting, O'Keeffe would also spend many an hour wandering the area's rocky wilderness, accompanied by her cherished dogs. O'Keeffe's first pet was a cat, shortly followed by a "large black French Poodle," who died aged just two. But it wasn't until O'Keeffe was given two "blue" Chow Chow puppies, Bo and Chia, for Christmas in 1953, that her heart was truly stolen – she went on to own six Chows in her lifetime, referring to them fondly as "little people".
"It seems to be my mission in life to wait on a dog"
One of the world's oldest dog breeds, the Chow Chow originated in China, where it is referred to as a Songshi Quan, meaning "puffy-lion dog." Chows are stocky creatures, who are square in profile with broad skulls and small, upright, triangular ears. Their eyes are jet-black, their tails curly, while their most distinguishing features are their unusual blue-black tongues and very straight hind legs, which result in a rather stilted gait. Chows have dense double coats (in a variety of colours) and a particularly thick mane-like ruff around their necks. The breed is not excessively active, tends to be weary of strangers and is very protective of its owners and property. Other famous Chow owners include Sigmeund Freud, who brought his dog Jo-Fi to all of his therapy sessions because he felt that dogs had a special ability to accurately judge the human character; and Martha Stewart whose Chow Ghengis Khan sadly died in a kennel fire.
O'Keeffe's life was very much centred around her Chows: "they sleep in my room at night and in the day are always just outside the door." One hot summer she refused to embark on her annual painting trips by car, fearing the weather was dangerous for her pets and she declined to install a new heater in her New Mexico ranch as the only place it would fit was her dog's favourite sleeping spot. She even commissioned a shawl to be made from her dogs' coats once they shed in spring. Bo (or Bobo or Beau, as she also referred to him) was the favourite of all O'Keeffe's canine friends; "big with a strong smooth coat," she described him as the "town boss" of Abiquiu, where he had a fierce reputation. When he died, O'Keeffe buried Bo under a cedar tree and wrote, "I like to think that probably he goes running and leaping through the White Hills alone in the night." O'Keeffe's final companion was Jingo, a red Chow who died not long before the artist herself. During an interview in her later years, O'Keeffe declared, "It seems to be my mission in life to wait on a dog."
Text by Daisy Woodward