Sit!

Jonathan Self re­veals how dogs, poised de­vot­edly at our side for cen­turies, have nes­tled their way into our hearts and into our art

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Jonathan Self re­veals how dogs, poised at our side for cen­turies, have nes­tled their way into our hearts and into our art

Ever since man first de­vel­oped an urge to be im­mor­talised in paint, he has in­cluded his four­legged com­pan­ions

Your chil­dren are beau­ti­fully be­haved,’ said the uf­fizi tour guide, three hours into our pri­vate view­ing, ‘so in­ter­ested, so po­lite. If only our adult visi­tors,’ he sighed, ‘were as man­nerly.’ Char­lotte, 11, who has had the poise of a ca­reer diplo­mat ever since she was a baby, smiled an­gel­i­cally. oliver, her twin brother, asked if we could visit room 27 as he wished to check a de­tail from Pon­tormo’s Sup­per at Em­maus. He called the guide dot­tore, earn­ing him­self, when the man had turned away, a sis­terly jab, which he coun­tered with a broth­erly shove.

The twins were en­gaged in a par­tic­u­larly tense round of a game I in­vented for them called Spot the Dog. The rules are sim­ple. Visit any mu­seum, gallery, place of wor­ship or coun­try house and look for works of art that in­cor­po­rate, in some way, a dog or dogs. If you’re play­ing a friendly match, then give your­self a point for ev­ery dog you spot, even if an­other player spot­ted him or her first. If, on the other paw, you’re par­tic­i­pat­ing in a cham­pi­onship, then dogs can’t be counted twice. The wise player pho­tographs each dog spot­ted, as it’s not un­known for games to end in ac­ri­mony and/or a stew­ard’s in­quiry.

As a way of en­cour­ag­ing chil­dren to take an in­ter­est in art (or sim­ply to stem the tide of com­plaints that can arise when younger mem­bers of the fam­ily suf­fer cul­ture over­load of the ‘not an­other church’ va­ri­ety), Spot the Dog can’t be beat. More­over, the game has a schol­arly side to it.

No one re­ally knows when hu­mans and dogs ac­tu­ally de­cided to live to­gether. An anal­y­sis of mi­to­chon­drial DNA sug­gests that the ori­gin of dogs can be traced back 135,000 years and the old­est dog re­mains to be found so far (in south­ern Siberia) can be dated

to 33,000 years ago. In the Chau­vet Cave in France, there ex­ist 26,000-yearold bare foot­prints left by a small, torch-bear­ing child and, en­dear­ingly, the paw prints of his ca­nine com­pan­ion.

What we can be cer­tain of is that, ever since our early an­ces­tors be­gan to draw, paint and dec­o­rate, dogs have been as pop­u­lar a sub­ject as peo­ple. In­deed, there are pre­his­toric So­ma­lian cave paintings of dogs that may be 12,000 years old, a Me­sopotamian statue of a dog (now in the Lou­vre) that could be 5,000 years old and, in Tu­tankhamun’s tomb, a re­lief panel in solid gold fea­tur­ing a run­ning, bark­ing dog that’s about 3,000 years old.

In the same way that dogs slowly and care­fully in­sin­u­ated them­selves into our lives (and hearts), al­low­ing us to be­lieve in the process that we were ‘do­mes­ti­cat­ing’ them, they in­sin­u­ated them­selves into our art.

From the be­gin­ning, they have been ac­corded the same cre­ative treat­ment as hu­mans. That is to say, some­times they’re merely fig­ures in the back­ground, part of the gen­eral scene, but not cen­tral to it. These are the dogs you see crouch­ing un­der a ta­ble, ly­ing on a mis­tress’s bed or par­tic­i­pat­ing in a hunt. On other oc­ca­sions, how­ever, dogs take (and when one thinks of their per­son­al­i­ties, this isn’t so sur­pris­ing) cen­tre stage. These are the dogs who were sculpted in Ancient Rome, cel­e­brated by me­dieval crafts­men and had their por­traits ex­e­cuted by fa­mous Vic­to­rian painters.

Var­i­ous themes run through the his­tory of dog art, many of which can be traced back to ancient times. From the Greeks, we get the idea of the dog as a loyal, faith­ful an­i­mal that never, ever deserts his mas­ter.

This con­cept was made pop­u­lar in the first in­stance by Homer, who, in The Odyssey, writes of how, on Odysseus’s re­turn to Ithaca, only his old dog, Ar­gos, recog­nises him. From the Ro­mans, who kept three kinds of dogs—hunt­ing dogs, guard dogs and com­pan­ion dogs—we in­herit a way of clas­si­fy­ing all dog art.

Some of the best dog art ap­pears in the most un­likely of places. I re­mem­ber look­ing up at the 12th­cen­tury fres­coed ceil­ing of the Pan­teón de los Reyes de la Basil­ica in the Col­giata de San Isi­doro in León, Spain, and find­ing, to my sur­prise, that the most dom­i­nant el­e­ment was a gi­ant guard dog be­ing fed by its owner un­der the watch­ful eyes of the Ar­changel Gabriel.

In fact, dogs are fre­quently fea­tured in Chris­tian art, ap­pear­ing in end­less vi­sions ( The Vi­sion of St Eus­tachius by Dürer, The Vi­sion of St Au­gus­tine by Carpac­cio) as well as be­ing present at ma­jor Bib­li­cal events ( The Na­tiv­ity by da Siena, The Last Sup­per by Loren­zetti) and even in the mar­gins of il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts ( The Book of Kells, The Rochester Bes­tiary).

An­other good source of ma­te­rial for Spot the Dog par­tic­i­pants are

He may be un­ob­tru­sive, but a ca­nine even fea­tures in Pi­etro Loren­zetti’s The Last Sup­per (about 1310–20)

The rules are sim­ple–give your­self a point for ev­ery dog you spot

por­traits. Ever since man first de­vel­oped an urge to be im­mor­talised in paint (or some other medium), he has in­cluded his four-legged com­pan­ions in the re­sult­ing com­po­si­tions. When the Duke of Man­tua com­mis­sioned a por­trait from Ti­tian (about 1525), he de­cided to be shown pet­ting his favourite dog. This served a sec­ond pur­pose, which was to tell the viewer what sort of a man the Duke was. Dogs of­fer artists am­ple op­por­tu­nity to high­light as­pects of a sub­ject’s per­son­al­ity, add a nar­ra­tive, ex­plain their sta­tus or im­ply some emo­tion.

It says ev­ery­thing about the close­ness that ex­ists be­tween men and dogs that the lat­ter don’t even need to be present to ed­u­cate and en­ter­tain the for­mer. All that is re­quired is a pic­ture. Percy Bysshe Shel­ley got it only half-right when he said: ‘The psy­cho­log­i­cal and moral com­fort of a pres­ence at once hum­ble and un­der­stand­ing— this is the great­est ben­e­fit that the dog has be­stowed upon man.’ An­other great ben­e­fit is that they have given the twins and me Spot the Dog.

In Ti­tian’s Venus of Urbino (be­fore 1538), the dog at the foot of the bed is a sym­bol of mar­i­tal fidelity

Las Men­i­nas

by Diego Velázquez (1656): here, a pas­sive and con­tent­look­ing dog forms part of the In­fanta Mar­garita’s en­tourage

Man’s best friend has ap­peared in art­works through­out the ages ( clock­wise from above): a fan from the tomb of Tu­tankhamun, once adorned with os­trich feath­ers, bears a hunt­ing dog (about 1370– 1352BC); a statue from Me­sopotamia, about 5000– 1000BC; and An­to­nio Zuc­chi’s The Re­turn of Telemachus to Penelope (1773)

Sweet dreams are made of this: dogs of­ten ap­pear in the works of Lu­cian Freud, in­clud­ing Dou­ble Por­trait (1985–86)

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