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