Pup Goes the Easel

UPDATED 05/05/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/05/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

THERE ARE FAR WORSE things in a dog's life than to be Oprah Winfrey's cocker spaniel. Maybe that's why Solomon looks so serene—smug even—as he gazes down from his portrait in Oprah's Chicago apartment. His likeness and that of Sophie, his companion in spanieldom, are the work of Christine Merrill, who ought to be serene in her own right, since her pet paintings sell for up to $15,000, with a waiting period of at least six months.

In addition to Oprah, Merrill, 34, has painted pooches for the late Malcolm Forbes, CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer, designer Geoffrey Beene and romance novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford. Her work is so popular that she has had seven one-woman shows at the prestigious William Secord Gallery in Manhattan, the most recent coinciding with the 1997 Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden.

The paintings Merrill specializes in have never been on art's cutting edge, but Merrill is one doggy Degas who couldn't care less. She also doesn't mind that many of her portraits are rendered to a doting owner's specifications, with pets lounging on sofas, posing in front of country estates or striking thoughtful postures. "I like making the client happy," she says. "I couldn't do a Picasso type of dog."

Merrill's portrait-painting genes come from her mother, Louise Donahue, 67, whose subjects have included Judy Agnew, the late Vice President's wife, and Tricia Nixon Cox. Merrill's father, Walter Herman, 70, a retired newspaper editor who was divorced from her mother in 1971, gave her her love of animals. "He saves them off the street," she says. "I save them off the street."

Merrill, who for years played the bagpipes in competition, was divorced from a fellow piper in 1992. She graduated in 1986 from the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore, where she gravitated to pet portraiture. A small article in House Beautiful, followed by a mention in The New York Times, led to the celebrity contacts that have made her career. "Geoffrey Beene and Malcolm Forbes came from that article," she says. "I was freaked out." Now, though, she jokes, "I'm used to it—'Oh, it's Oprah. I'll call her back later.' "

Merrill likes to start by observing a dog—for some reason, cat owners rarely employ her services—where it lives. She takes photos, makes sketches, then goes home to work on the painting. "She works in the 18th-century tradition with colors and techniques, and at the same time she really understands animals and is able to paint character," says William Secord.

Doesn't she ever get bored painting dogs? "Well," says Merrill, "sometimes I feel like painting penguins. Or polar bears." Unfortunately, Oprah owns neither.

MICHAEL NEILL
MARY ESSELMAN in Baltimore

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