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Dogs in Art: The Fascinating Background of an Artist’s Best Friend

People and dogs have been inseparable since time began. Friend, helper, hunter and worker, the dog is a remarkable animal that has adapted to our lifestyles and circumstances for thousands of years. Did you know that over 78 million dogs live in United States households alone? That’s a lot of belly rubs, dog food, and fetch throws each year!

It’s no surprise then to discover that the loyal canine has become an integral part of Western civilization and culture, including art. As dogs have been a man’s best friend, so have they been an artist’s best friend. To celebrate this ancient bond, let’s take a look and see how this relationship between man and beast has unfolded in the course of history.

Together Since the Dawn of Time – A History of Humans and Dogs

What Have You by Morgan Dennis

What Have You by Morgan Dennis

Dogs have stood by us from their humble beginnings as the wild wolf to the hundreds of breed variations today. Originally domesticated in the Middle East during the Bronze Age, dogs were valued hunters and companions in the ancient world. The earliest records of dogs in art include cave paintings of a man with a dog on a leash in the prehistoric Bhimbetka rock shelters. In Ancient Greece and Rome, dogs were favored as pets and often appeared in reliefs, ceramics, and even literature. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus’s beloved dog Argos was the only one who recognized him after he returned home from his epic journey. In Pompeii, there were even mosaic pictures of dogs near homes that were inscribed with the Latin words for Beware of the dog!

In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, dogs in art gradually transitioned from prized hunters to household pets. They were often symbols of status and wealth since the nobility could afford to feed them. As artists became more defined in their techniques, they often incorporated dogs in their work to symbolize many different things. We’ll explore some common themes dogs often represented below.

Love, Trust, Courage and Lust – The Many Facets behind Dogs in Art

Dogs were an easy and abundant source of inspiration for artists to draw from. They were common background visual motifs and for a long time were simply added as such in paintings. During the Renaissance, however, artists began to observe the world around them and create their work from a realistic perspective. What better subject to reference than the dog? Featuring dogs in complex pieces seemed to be a natural conclusion.

Fidelity, courage, and strength were common themes dogs portrayed in symbolism. The dog in the Italian painting Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife c. 1434, for example, symbolizes the loyalty and trust in their marriage. Dogs were popular marriage gifts between couples in the Renaissance. And sometimes, dogs even represented the passionate lust between them in art.

Dogs represented many other symbols in art throughout history, too. Sometimes they carried the Old Testament burden of consuming evil or unclean things. Sometimes they were an artistic reflection of people or the traits of their owners. Whichever allegory they stand for, one thing is definitely clear – that the bond between humans and dogs is a strong one, and it won’t change anytime soon.

To see dogs in the fascinating world of art today, click Beth Parcell Evans, Morgan Dennis, Debra Keirce and Sue Wall. Keirce and Wall are happy to create a special portrait of your best friend. Contact us if you would like to have one done.