Dogs in paintings

Since the birth of civilisation, paintings have suggested that the dog is man’s best friend. The first depictions of dogs are in prehistoric cave paintings from around 4500 BC in general, with the exception of the earlier Cueva de Vieja frieze. While dogs are portrayed less frequently than game, which was the main source of inspiration, they are shown as hunting dogs of a breed unlike any currently known. Dogs started to resemble those we know today in paintings from ancient Egypt.

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Roman Empire: watchdogs

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The status of dogs in society improved in the Roman Empire, where they were fully-fledged domesticated animals prized as guards and hunting dogs. They were loyal companions, completely devoted to their owners. Most of them were proud mastiffs, as impressive as they were ferocious, tasked with guarding access to the home.

Middle Ages: primarily hunting dogs

Dogs were virtually absent from pictorial art until the Middle Ages. This may have been due to the awareness among artists at the time of the aggressive, famished stray dogs that devoured carcasses. In Islam, dogs are still regarded as accursed symbols of the force of evil and death.

The use of dogs in hunting helped change public opinion. It is, however, important to note that aggressiveness was the only trait people were interested in exploiting in the early Middle Ages. Thus, dogs started to reappear in paintings, usually in packs. Tableaus depict kings hunting with their dogs, sometimes in packs of a thousand.

In time, the portrayal of dogs in art mirrored reality more and more closely, although it was not always easy to determine exactly which breed was depicted. That said however, every type of dog had its speciality. Scenthounds are shown tracking game animals with their nose.

These breeds of similar appearance but different coat colours include Bloodhounds (Chiens de Saint-Hubert), Chiens Blanc du Roy, Fauves de Bretagne and Gris de Saint-Louis, whose names clearly show who they belonged to or where they came from. Pointers are shown with falcons, hunting large game; they were used to kill prey before the invention of guns.

The Renaissance: dogs became humanised

Companion dogs began to be depicted in paintings in the late Middle Ages when Renaissance ladies were portrayed with small dogs on their lap or at their feet. Small Greyhounds and other miniature breeds appeared to enchant their mistresses, who lavished them with caresses. Renaissance artists depicted dogs much less sparingly. All sorts of breeds appear in 16th century paintings, from the small lapdogs of ladies through refined Greyhounds to the larger dogs accompanying the lords.

Dogs were depicted in a more human light: lying under the table at banquets, feasting on titbits. By now, they were fully-fledged companion animals. Artists everywhere started to paint dogs: in one, set in Venice, Bichons rest themselves on cushions while being doted on by their mistress in a gondola. Dogs were still essentially hunting companions, however, and artists began to distinguish the different types of hunting dog (scenthounds, pointers etc.) more clearly.

17th Century to the present day: the development of the breeds

The number of breeds began to grow significantly at the start of the 17th century, again in connection with hunting, at least in the early stages. As hunting techniques and game diversified, so, too, did hunting dog breeds. But by the end of the century the focus had switched to smaller dogs like the King Charles Spaniel, a royal favourite.

Dogs gradually began to be depicted alone in paintings or at least as the focal point. Some artists began to specialise in animal painting, including François Desportes (1661-1743), artist at the court of King Louis XIV, Paul de Vos (1596-1678), Abraham Hondius (1625-1691), Franz Snyders (1579-1657) and Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755).

Dogs were depicted with striking realism, in terms of both anatomy and expression. The distinctive postures and expressions of each breed were copied directly from real life. Sometimes, it is as though the artist’s goal was simply to immortalise the dog.

In the 19th and 20th centuries artists’ depictions of dogs were verging on the sentimental, as the packs of hunting dogs serving royalty were replaced almost totally by companion dogs and, less frequently, by herders and watchdogs.

Soon the style became abstract. Dogs began to be portrayed as symbols, making it impossible to determine which breed had inspired a particular piece. Dogs began increasingly to appeal to artists and society as a whole, and today, dogs continue to be a source of endless admiration and inspiration, appreciated by all.

Many contemporary artists use dogs, more or less stylised, in their paintings.

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