This week Clint Wells, The Blanton’s graphic designer, shares his thoughts on the history of dogs in art. An avid dog lover himself, and owner of four, Clint explores how the representation of “man’s best friend” has changed over the centuries…
Dogs have been appearing in artwork as far back as 4500 BCE, portrayed in cave wall paintings alongside horses and other wild animals, though their likeness can’t be identified as any particular breed. Stylized representations of canines appeared in everything from paintings to pottery from ancient Egypt, Greece, China and Mexico. This was possibly linked to the dog’s role in mythology and religious imagery like Cerberus, the multi-headed canine guardian of Hades in Greek mythology.
As dogs’ relationships with humans evolved, so did their representation in art. In the early Middle Ages, dogs were valued for their aggression, and were often represented in packs on hunting expeditions. Often in Illuminated Manuscripts, like the one below, whose subject matter was the breeding, care, and training of hunting dogs.
But by the time of the Renaissance, as dogs began to be viewed more as domestic companions, they appeared in paintings on the laps of ladies as objects of affection. In the
18th century, dog portraits became popular amongst the wealthy British. Aristocrats had a long tradition of admiring purebreds, and their portraits often included them.
Royalty also played a part. Queen Victoria and her pet preferences had an undeniable influence. Her Dachshunds and Pomeranians ensured the popularity of both breeds, and her love for the Highlands triggered a mania for everything Scottish, including the Scottish Deerhound.
While it is much more commonplace now, portraying dogs as the primary subjects of art was groundbreaking. No artist was more influential in this respect than Edward Landseer, whose career coincided with the passage of the first animal-cruelty laws and the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. His work had an enormous impact on mainstream perceptions about animals.
Many of Landseer’s images are iconic. Victorians characterized Saint Bernards and Newfoundlands as heroic breeds, whose natural instinct was to save human lives. The 1856 painting Saved, an extremely popular work by Landseer, forever linked him to the black-and-white Newfoundland, although he was not the first or only artist to portray this coat color. Today, the classic black-and-white color of Newfoundlands is called “Landseer.” Landseer was also responsible for some misconceptions. In his 1820 painting, Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, the brandy cask secured around the Saint Bernard’s neck was simply an artistic device, but this image immediately gained traction and is now permanently embedded in Saint Bernard lore.
In America, as people began to explore and settle the Western frontier, they brought along their dogs as both companions and to aid them in hunting for game and guarding livestock. Interestingly, canines also played a similar role in Native American society. Many of the paintings in our current exhibition, Go West!, include dogs.
So as dogs’ relationships and place in human society evolved, so did the ways in which they were represented in artworks, both symbolically and as subject matter. Regardless, it is easy to see that over centuries this animal has held – and continues to hold – a special place in the human heart.
1) Cave painting of man and dog, artist unknown, Altamira, Spain.
2) Gaston Phebus, illustration from Le Livre de la chasse (The Book of Hunting), 14th-15th centuries, illuminated manuscript.
3) Marco Benefial, Portrait of a Lady with a Dog, 1730s, oil on canvas, Suida-Manning Collection, Blanton Museum of Art.
4) Edward Landseer, Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, 1820s, oil on canvas, courtesy William Secord Gallery, New York, New York.
5) Albert Bierstadt, Sioux Village near Fort Laramie, 1859, oil on panel, Gift of C.R. Smith, Blanton Museum of Art.