Faces, Animal and Human

Today’s post comes from Clyde.

As a farm and woods child I was struck by how animals know to look humans in the face. Or is it just the eyes? Not always easy to tell. Maybe it is obvious for animals to look at our face, but I have never been sure it is. Maybe they are looking at the source of our voice, but the few woods animals with which I had close contact looked at my face and I was being silent. It was the cultural norm in my family to talk to the animals. Many insist that our pets pick up our moods. I think they probably read us well. Not sure they respond to our moods as people believe. I think we anthropomorphize their behavior more than we realize.

The human brain is hard-wired about faces. We memorize them extremely well. When researchers make minute changes in the key landmarks in a photo of someone their subjects know, the subjects recognize something is incorrect. This is why portraiture is so difficult. Maybe all mammals are hard-wired about faces.

As if to throw mud in our faces about this, some eastern Europeans studied the behavior of the brains of our dogs as they encounter us, watching to see how much of the brain lights up on scanners when they interact with us. Their studies show that the dog brain is no more responsive to the owner’s face than to the back of the head. This so far is a one-off study, needed other studies to duplicate, or not, their results.

But it makes me wonder. How much of our truth about our pets is in our heads and not in theirs, so to speak. The great science writer Stephen Jay Gould wrote very often about how scientists’ protocols of study and analysis of results produce the results they want to discover. Objectivity is not really ever very true.

Consider these three faces.

We certainly read all sorts of things into these three faces. The tuxedo cat is my son’s Neon and the St. Bernard is his son’s Melvin. The cat with the fancy ruffled shirt is my daughter’s Bean. (If you are wondering why the dog lacks the usual jowliness of the breed, it is because he is only a year old. The jowliness, my son tells me, starts to develop at that point. And both his parents are small for the breed and are not very jowly. He is small at 120 pounds.) What are you reading in their faces? They are just sitting there looking at their owners, maybe wondering what that thing is they hold up in front of them so often.

Amazon Prime has three series of a competition to find in Great Britain the Portrait Painter of the Year. You watch several painters painting one of three famous people. At each of four rounds they pick one painter to go onto the next round, and then they pick a winner. The three judges are very biased against anything very literal. Yet somehow the best four can capture the face very well in less literal modes. I suspect however the failed literalists get the most commission work. Sandy, oddly, is fascinated by these shows. So we watch them together in the afternoon when I am over there. No matter how you look at it, portraits are a fascinating topic in art history.

All you pet lovers, go ahead and disagree with me about your pets responding to you.

How objective do you think you can be?

Do you have a favorite great portrait or portrait painter?

How would you want your portrait to be painted?

61 thoughts on “Faces, Animal and Human”

  1. I don’t find it surprising that animals look at our eyes, which happen to be in our faces and correspond, more or less, to the eyes of their own species. I think they look to the eyes of others to gauge mood and intention—it’s easy to tell if you have been singled out and whether an animal, or human, is agitated. Of the three animals in the post, I would say that all three appear relaxed, not agitated, and the last two seem to be waiting for something to happen. I wouldn’t venture much more.

    While I don’t find attention to eyes remarkable, I would add that our most recent cat surprised and impressed me. She was in the habit of waking me every morning quite early. I, in response, would cover as much of my head with the pillow as I could comfortably do to fend off her prompting. She would come very close and meow right in my ear. It was clearly intentional. Now my ears don’t resemble hers and their location is not the same but somehow she understood that she could have the greatest effect meowing into those orifices.

    I’m objective enough to recognize that I’m probably not very objective. At the same time, I recognize that my opinion is as good as anyone’s but its authority extends no further than myself.

    I’ve painted several portraits and self-portraits, all of them fairly literal and none of them very good. No matter how precisely one conforms to the shape and dimensions of the features of a face, there is something ineffable that makes a successful likeness and that’s hard to achieve.

    I’ve always admired John Singer Sargent, a distinctly literal portraitist, and I think the artists that painted the Obama’s portraits did a sensational job.

    I have no interest in having my portrait painted; I don’t even especially like my picture taken.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I think that humans are a very visual species, and tend to assume that animals are too. When you say that your ears don’t resemble a cat’s and aren’t in the same position, you’re assuming that visuals cues are the cat’s main source of information. But cats and dogs rely on scent more than anything. Perhaps she knows that’s your ear because it smells like an ear.


  2. My very first thought when you asked what you thought the animals were thinking was “do they taste like chicken?” I really miss Bloom County.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Very timely topic as just last night YA and I had our first session, ala zoom, with a dog trainer/behavioralist. One of the assignments is to give Guinevere a job which for now includes training. This will be easy since Guinevere is pretty smart and already knows quite a bit but the trainer said to do it repeatedly during the day in small bits. One of those items is “look at me” in which the dog needs to be making eye contact before she gets a little kibble. It’s a new skill but after only 12 hours and three little sessions, it’s clear Guinevere completely gets this.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. My two delinquents now have me pretty well trained to drop everything and feed them breakfast and dinner when the phone starts to sing the mealtime song.

    This is extra impressive when you realize that the phone they originally were using to train me got runover, and the new phone has a slightly different collection of tunes.

    When it goes off, at least one of them comes running, and if I’m not headed to the kitchen, the orange tabby guy will march up to me and tell me to get after it.

    Liked by 6 people

  5. Rise and Shine Baboons,

    Having my portrait painted would be on my list of horrors. That said, I do like to look at portraits of others, and I love to sculpt other people. Facial expression and a sense of movement and energy are as important as the technical reproduction of features.

    I think people project onto their pets whatever they need. Over the years I have known several people who were quite submissive and dependent. They turned their pets into tyrants who demanded treats and who had the run of the house, then took over the bed at night.

    That said, pets do have their own personalities, habits and abilities, as well. Our Rat Terrier, Coco, would wait for Lou at the door every night on time until he walked through the door after his work day. There are some very convincing studies about the benefits of pets on mental health and the positive effects of therapy animals.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. My son’s Neon is a prescribed therapy animal, who has made a huge difference for him. She sits beside his computer and stares at him while he programs. So what is she thinking while she sits like this and watches?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. “If you would just let me walk over that keyboard, you would be done by now, but I was told in therapy school not to do that, so I’m hoping you can just pick up on the telepathy coming your way. I’m 100% with you”.

        Liked by 5 people

        1. Well, Clyde, a laptop IS nice and warm.

          As is the HD radio we bought in order to get Radio Heartland when it started. The orange tabby we got via Ben is a bit too big for it, so he drapes himself over the edges, and thus has managed to turn it off or, more likely, hit the big function button, so suddenly in the middle of listening to Once and Future King, I’ve got the BBC talking about the situation in Ukraine..

          I suspect Merlin would approve.

          Liked by 7 people

  6. Nice header photo. Cows have as much personality as dogs, cats, birds or any other animal. And they can pass it along; back when Dad used to pick which bulls to use for AI (artificial Insemination) he liked ‘Carval’, who made cows that looked good and gave a lot of milk, but their attitude was terrible. Took me a lot of years to get rid of the Carval daughters.

    Our dog Humphrey will not look you in the eye. He’s a great dog, but he won’t look at you. He doesn’t lick much, Allie is always licking and she’ll stare at you. Mostly trying to get us to do whatever it is she needs at the moment. In, out, in, out. She’s the Queen of the bunch.

    I’ve always liked Norman Rockwell’s stuff.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. They are actually staring at The Light of Their Lives while my mother takes this photo: my father of course. Third one, The Matriarch, is mother of first one, a milker, and fourth one a steer. Yearling is daughter of first one, granddaughter of matriarch.
      Ben, we had a holstein milker who was often near but not with the herd when I went to get them. She preferred to make me drive her out of any thick brush she could find.
      An enduring image of my childhood is all the animals in their stalls staring at me in the morning, I being at that moment The Bringer of Food.

      Liked by 7 people

      1. That is a righteous woodpile you’ve got there. Did you chop that?

        My dad and his brother used to talk about the hated chore of “ranking” the firewood in the cellar. I can only assume that came from such a pile.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You are seeing some of the big chunks for the Warm Morning to heat the house. Off to the right is a small er pile of smaller splits for the kitchen stove, much of which I split. The only source of heat in our house were those two stoves.

          Liked by 4 people

  7. I am completely unobjective. I like to believe that animals are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. The more research that goes into animal senses, the more surprised scientists are. I have a couple of ‘favorite’ pictures of my four-footed little brother. One where he was a puppy, trying to steal foil-wrapped decorative chocolates off of my sister’s Christmas present without leaving any evidence. And one where he was old, with grey in his ears, laying on the partially completed deck of our house. I kept pointing across the street and telling him to ‘look,’ so I could get a nice profile of him. He kept looking back and ‘woofing’ at me that he didn’t know what I wanted him to look at.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Husband saw a portrait photo of a Cesky Terrier and decided we are getting a new dog. It looks like a short legged Scotty. It is calmer than most terriers and scoopable (easy to pick up). We are in conversation with a couple of breeders. There was something about the long, bearded face and the eyes that just got to him.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. my dogs cats and fish all relate differently
    each with their own perspective as to life and the relationship we share
    i love my dogs
    my cats are my friends
    the fish appreciate my existence

    i will consider a self portrait if my energy allows during my time at home
    i’d like that
    i’ve done both free form and craftsmanship versions
    each has their place
    i think i’d like rembrandt and oskar kokoshka maybe modigliani and henry more each to give it a shot
    i’ll bet i’d have a hard time choosing

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Agreed on Holbein.

      And if I HAD to have a potrait of myself, I’d want him, as he seemed to find a way to make people look good, yet not unrecognizably so.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pippin is extremely responsive to me. Too responsive, as a matter of fact. Ever since I moved us here from Waterville, he has been stressed out about where I am and why I have to leave. I’ve never been able to reassure him that I will always come back home. He had it nice in Waterville. My friend was there and she used to come take him over to her house for play time with her dog. She’s a real dog spoiler so I’m certain there were plenty of treats involved, a walk or two, and lots of play. Then she’d bring him back in the evening before I got home so he only had to spend an hour or two by himself. It’s obviously too far for her to do this now so he lost his playtime and friends and extra treats. I don’t know if I will ever be able to make it up to him. He insists that I stay home now. He’s very clear about it. He works himself into a tizzy. He chews things up, eats objects not meant to be consumed, throws up, and cries and howls. When I come home he mauls me and wants to be fed. He’s already on prescription dog food for bladder stones and had surgery three years ago. Now I’m finding that he either has pancreatitis or irritable bowel syndrome. He goes through bouts of being incontinent at night and needing treatment for colitis. Tomorrow he will have blood drawn to test for pancreatitis. He is very high maintenance. I think it’s in his nature to be this way but I am a human and I can’t stay on the couch and play with him 100 percent of the time. So I will find out soon what change he will need in dietary support. He’s 12 this year and relatively healthy, happy, active and playful. I just can’t leave without upsetting him.

    I don’t think I have a favorite portrait artist. Portraits are interesting to look at. I don’t want my portrait done. I can’t imagine that. I think you would really discover how others see you. I guess I don’t want to know.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. My younger niece has a cat that was having some behavioral problems, crying when she left him, eliminating inappropriately, and just generally being very high strung. She thought he needed company and got a second cat. The first cat’s behavior settled down almost immediately, he had his buddy with him and he was OK.
      Unfortunately, cat #2 had health issues and recently died, so cat #1 has been beside himself.
      My niece wants a replacement cat. On Saturday she was on the verge of adopting one. I’ll have to find out if that has happened yet.
      Some animals just want a human; some want other animals too. Or more than one human.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Today was my sixth day in a row, using a different word each day, that I managed to NOT get a single letter right in my first guess. On one of those days, I actually managed to get the first TWO words without one correct letter. I’m going to see how long I can keep that streak going, might as well try to set some kind of personal record.
      Took me five tries today.

      Liked by 3 people

        1. Especially when you consider that my first guesses were pretty ordinary words such as apron and radio. I’ll have to make a special effort tomorrow to not include any of the “right” letters.

          Liked by 3 people

        1. I keep thinking the puzzle is going to go for a more obscure answer than it actually is, so I went for “shone” rather than “those” when I was left with two choices.


  11. There have been very few photos taken of me that I actually like. I suppose that’s because I think I look better than I actually do. I’m probably not very objective about that. No matter, I’ve had one portrait done (by renowned Jamaican painter Barrymore Watson long before he made a name for himself), and I treasure it. It is just a quick ink drawing that I wasn’t even aware that he was doing at the time, but he somehow captured the essence of the sweet, vulnerable eighteen year old girl I was at the time. If memory serves, I’ve actually shared a photo of that ink drawing on the trail several years ago.

    There are several artists whose portraits I treasure, but Valentin Serov may be the one I have most consistently admired since I first encountered his work in 1964.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. – No pets at present.

    – As Bill said, “I’m objective enough to recognize that I’m probably not very objective”, at least about things in which I’m “heavily invested”.

    – I thought more about last week’s question about art the day after, and realized the art that moves me is that showing people’s expressions and emotions. I just can’t conceive of how an artist/portraitist can get not only the physical details and attributes of a person’s face, but can often capture expressions and attitudes. I love pictures of people laughing – there is a card I bought at the Museum of Russian Art called something like “Milkmaids” – two of them have their heads thrown back laughing, while the third sits back with a smirk on her face, obviously having just told the joke.

    – When at a convention in New Orleans, my dad had a street artist do his portrait. I was amazed at how the guy, in a very short time, managed to capture my dad’s thoughtfulness and kindness in that portrait. It’s too big to hang in this house – I should frame a small photo of it.
    That said, I have no desire to have anyone do my portrait.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Not sure what to make of that last sentence, Clyde. It strikes me as a rather dismissive or cynical assessment of the painting. Is that your intention?


        1. Only to point out the reality that when it was painted soviet artisits were painting the joys of the collective system, which history says was not very joyful. That does not dismiss the artistry of the painting. Lots of great paintings have propaganda purposes, such as Guernica.

          Liked by 3 people

        2. Wow! I bet you and I could have some rather interesting (contentious?) discussions. I’m intrigued, though, I don’t think we see eye to eye on what “propaganda” is. I see Guernica as an anti-war statement, not as a piece of propaganda.


  13. I can’t say that I’ve ever known a cow. I have met some, yes, but not long enough to have any sense of who they were. But I’ll take Clyde’s and Ben’s word for how smart and how much personality they have.

    I’ve had lots of experience with cats and dogs, though, and I can attest to the fact that they do have individual personalities, and some are a lot smarter than others. Some are easily trained, and some are pretty determined to do their own thing. It’s hard for me to imagine a life without a cat or a dog in it; they are such good company if you treat them right.

    Liked by 4 people

  14. I wouldn’t want to sit still long enough to have a portrait done and then what the heck would I do with it anyway? But I suppose if you forced me my favorite artist this week is Sandra Boynton. That could be interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I have a sketch that was done of me when I was about twenty or so. That’s a good age to have a sketch done. I was never a beauty, but at the time I didn’t appreciate that there is an intrinsic beauty in being young. You can see that only when you’re old, I guess. As Bill said in a previous post, “there was apparently a brief period when I was adorable.”

    Liked by 3 people

  16. I disagree, animals definitely pick up on our moods. Body language is an animal’s only source of communication. Kinda like sign language, since they we’re born being unable to speak they are capable of reading body language better than we are. My horse knows my intention to catch him before seeing the lead rope and will act accordingly when he doesn’t want ti be caught. My donkey knows what I’m doing and we’re I’m going before I’ve even made up my own mind, and dogs can actually smell chemicals in our body. So if we’re happy, sad, sick, and so on… they KNOW! Our brain and bodies produce chemicals that actually change the way we smell. Animals are far more intuitive than human beings.


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