Today, the high esteem and the affection we have for our dogs seems a modern phenomenon, a quantum difference from the past, but in fact, that is just not true. A bit more widespread perhaps, but definitely not new.
The importance of dogs comes through clearly in both history and in art, dating to distant centuries and cave paintings. In The Paw Prints of History, the significance of the roles of dogs belonging to well-known figures including Florence Nightingale, Sigmund Freud, the Fifth Dalai Lama, Robert the Bruce, Omar Bradley and myriad others is fascinating. Richard Wagner admitted that one of the arias in the opera “Siegfried” was “written” by one of his dogs. In painting, from the sublime to the satirical to the surreal, artists have long felt the allure of incorporating dogs into their work. Hunting scenes were popular in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and dogs symbolized fidelity, protection and watchfulness. As the law allowed only the nobility to keep them, hunting dogs also denoted station. As dogs became more domesticated, they were shown as companion animals, often painted sitting on a lady’s lap, and were a status symbol in Western art indicating the wealth that was needed to care for them.
There are many lush and informative coffee table books on the subject. In Dog Painting: A Social History of the Dog in Art, the author begins with earliest times but concentrates on the period between 1840-1940 and the book is a visual joy. Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today, starts at the end of the 16th century and includes Manet, Wyeth, DalÍ, Warhol and more. The Dog in Art from Rococo to Post-Modernism, contributes a “mock-serious study features images of dogs spanning the flowering of 18th-century Romanticism to the present.” If your tastes are more three-dimensional, you might prefer Hounds in Leash: The Dog in 18th and 19th Century Sculpture.
Love of dogs is now expressed à la internet. Compton Verney, an art gallery and park situated near Stratford-Upon-Avon, hosted a Twitter exchange earlier this year calling for all lovers of dogs and art to feature their favorite examples using the tag #DogsInPaintings, gathering submissions far and wide. Oxford’s revered Ashmolean Museum contributed a “dog scratching his ear on an Athenian red-figure cup,” circa 500 B.C., a print of which you can own. A delightful painting titled Sympathy by Briton Riviere, a study of which is in collection at the Tate and dating to 1878, features a young girl exiled in punishment to the staircase, where her sweet dog rests his head on her shoulder in moral support. What would you tweet?