Dogs and the History of Art

If visual record of a society serves as an indication of its values and priorities, then surely a dog has been of great importance to man.

The earliest images of the dogs can be traced to around 6000 years ago. The image of dog-like creatures appears on the prehistoric cave paintings of the Paleolithic period. Then, in Egyptian art. The Ancient Greeks also have left behind many depictions of the greyhound, the mastiff, and the diminutive Maltese terrier. The depiction of the dog is very impressive on the Babylonian wall reliefs, which are now kept at the British Museum.


The dog’s presence in Western art throughout centuries could seem almost incidental: a common part of human life, it accompanies the hunter, the knight, and the priest, crouches under the table at feasts and sits by the beds of women. A certain specific symbolism was always attributed to the dog in these pictures. Popular was the tradition of projecting human traits onto a dog.












Starting from the 15th and the 16th centuries, artists began slowly to elevate the dog to the center stage and make it the primary subject with compellingly realistic images of actual dogs.

XIR227264 Head of a Dog (red chalk on paper) by Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola) (1503-40) red chalk on paper Louvre, Paris







Late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were the most prolific times for dog portraits. Many famous artists in different countries dedicated themselves to paintings the dogs specifically.










Among others, such masters as Edwin Landseer, George Stubbs, Rosa Bonheur, Maud Earl, and painters of the English school in general stand out. The English school was strongly supported by Queen Victoria, who was a well-known dog lover and owner of many dogs herself. She, herself, ordered many portraits of her own dogs, decorating the rooms of her palace with them. All of them are still in the Royal collection.

As one famous art critic said about them, “these paintings are of real dogs…and they live and breathe with the glisten of years-old oil paint: skin moving over bones, and lusty blood coursing through veins; these are dogs ready to leap from the canvas”.

These were mostly the dogs of the wealthy, much-prized and lavishly cared for. The appearance in art of specific dogs drawn from life with character and individuality, these are depictions of individuals akin to human portraits. The main lines of canine portraying over the years developed into “sporting portrait” (a dog depicted hunting in the active role), “purebred painting” (specifically to demonstrate the physical breed characteristics and splendid appearance), and “pet portrait” (the purpose of which was to reflect the actual pet, its character, and its endearing and unique qualities as well as general appearance). Of course, the paintings did not always stand strictly in between the restrictions of the genre.



All through the 20th century, the dog was often depicted, with both the tradition of specific “pet portraying” and that of painting dogs as secondary characters in the pictures staying alive. Almost all great artistic names of the epoch painted dogs in one way or another. With the advent of modernism, the depictions grew increasingly experimental and abstract.

The dog is so firmly ingrained in human society that it will never fade, and as dog and human continue to walk the same path together, so the artist will continue to immortalize the in painting or sculpture for centuries to come. For myself, I would like to add that I hope that the 21st century would continue this tradition of admiring the beauty and complexity of the dog, immortalizing our modern pets, and through art, reminiscing about their place both in our lives and in our hearts.