Dogs in sculpture


As humans evolved, they invented art to express their feelings about the world around them. They began by drawing what they saw on cave walls, using pigments in relief. Later, they discovered pottery and sculpture. Animals naturally became subjects of artistic inspiration. They became religious symbols, alternatively feared or respected.

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Prehistory: figurative art

The first sculptures of dogs are earthenware objects in a very plain style. This figurative art was primarily dictated by respect for the animal’s uses, which was as a hunting companion, breeding object and part of everyday life. Traces of claw and tooth marks are sometimes found. Sculptures portray animals with disproportionate bellies and short legs.

Precolumbian art

Precolumbian art was also very simple. There was no desire to depict dogs realistically as such, but rather to instil them with the qualities of the god with which they were associated. Precolumbian sculpture became an expression of the spiritual and mystical world, a trend that reached its peak in Antiquity.

Egypt: dogs as stylised symbols

The ancient Egyptians worshipped all sorts of animals including the dog, which was the earthly incarnation of the god Anubis and sometimes Thot. In their highly elaborate, stylised sculptures, artists sought to evoke the dog’s character, while retaining its normal form, generally based on that of the desert Greyhound. The limestone dog at the Musée du Louvre, Paris — showing a sheepdog wearing a collar — is a perfect example. Bas-reliefs often depict dog racing or hunting scenes.

The ancient Egyptians also used dogs to decorate tombs and necropolises. The depictions of Anubis on the sarcophagus of Madja from the 18th dynasty clearly show a dog with a fox’s tail. Two statues of dogs stand guard at the entrance to all temples as a symbol of how the king watched over his people.

Asia: lion-dogs

The dog occupies a very unique position in Asia, where it has been considered both a god and a delicacy, earning either respect or scorn. At the entrance to most Chinese temples and palaces stand two “lion-dogs” with clear similarities to the mastiff breeds native to the region. Even in everyday sculptures, the traits of the dog are exaggerated and embellished with ornamentation of various sizes.

Assyria: fine animal sculpture

High-quality animal sculpture was abundant in Assyria, where religious beliefs and the cult of kings dictated artistic inspiration. Dogs are generally portrayed alone, with remarkable finesse, as part of hunting scenes, or accompanied by their master.

Ancient Greece and Rome: geometric style

The art of ancient Greece and Rome was primarily geometric in style, characterised by clean lines, but, as in human sculpture, animals became more refined, to the point of near-perfect realism. Very few dog statues have been found, which is not surprising, given that dogs were no longer seen as gods.

Middle Ages: imaginative representations

In the Middle Ages, art turned towards the imagination and symbols. Good and evil were the main sources of inspiration after religion. Dogs played a limited, essentially decorative, role.

In the Renaissance, artists concentrated on anatomical and morphological studies as they endeavoured to find the ideal proportions. The main theme was the horse; dogs seemed to have limited appeal.

17th century to the present day: popular subjects

The dog remained a subject of practice rather than a true theme in sculpture, although animal artists did start to depict dogs as their main subjects in the 19th century. These included Antoine Louis Barye (1796-1875), who created anatomically accurate bronze sculptures based on dissections. His main subject was the hunting breeds.

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