For who knows how long, dogs have been referred to as man’s best friend and though this certainly holds true, I would say the same applies to other furry creatures as well, such as cats, rabbits, guinea pigs etc. I began thinking about our four legged as well as winged friends after returning from a trip home when my boisterous and mischevious black cat, Loki (he lives up to his name), greeted me with loud meows accompanied by frenzied purring, it seemed he missed me while I was gone, or maybe he was just hungry…but either way I knew I had missed him, antics and all. For those who have a pet or have ever owned a pet, whatever species or breed they may be, know what it is like to have a constant companion who always greets you, in a way, with a “smile.” About 10,000 years ago dogs became one of the first domesticated animals and by 3500 B.C. cats became a household pet in Egypt. Undoubtedly the longest lasting trend, that won’t be ending anytime soon; pets have not only become ingrained into our cultural history, but have been immortalized by the artist as well. When one first thinks of dog paintings, something similar to the amusingly kitsch painting from the film Goodfellas may come to mind, but contrary to this perception some of the most avant-garde artists such as Picasso have chosen to depict their canine counterparts.
As we take a look throughout art history there is an overwhelming presence of pets in painting, an early example is the infamous Arnolfini Portrait circa 1434 where a fluffy little fella stands in the foreground. Though Fido could definitely be overlooked in this painting, he becomes both a symbol of loyalty and a reflection of wealth and courtly status, as he is merely a companion lap dog versus a working dog. It was during the Middle Ages when dogs and cats began being treated as pets as we know them today, bringing them into the home and allowing them to live amongst the family, however this was limited to the upper classes who could afford to feed an extra mouth.
It was not until the mid-1800’s, in light of the industrial revolution and burgeoning middle class, that a larger demographic could afford a household pet. At this point owning pets, especially birds, became all the rage. In addition, commissioned portraits accompanied by your dog, cat, or bird also became a popular practice as one can see many examples all throughout the 19th century. At even greater lengths, the pets at times had their own portrait painted exemplified below with this hilarious portrait of a pug who indeed looks like a grumpy old socialite propped up in an armchair, it may be a comment on the bourgeois or may be just the mark of an enthusiastic owner? Regardless, pets remained a pertinent subject to painters in both commissioned portraits and not.
Probably one of the most iconic examples of a pet appearing in an uncommissioned portrait is in Andrew Wyeth’s Master Bedroom, which depicts a little pup curled up on a bed snoozing the day away. It is a portrayal of the everyday dog in an everyday American home, man’s best friend at his very best.
Today the “dog portrait,” lives on as contemporary painter Judy Henn cleverly pays homage to some of the great painters in her whimsical dog portraits such as in this David Hockney inspired piece below.
It is no surprise that pets can be seen in paintings throughout history, as painting served as a form of documentation of life before the camera, and it is also no surprise that they continue to serve as an artistic muse as pets are a signifier of prosperity, humanity, and civilization; we undeniably love them and they love us back, unconditionally. These kind of portrayals of the everyday still appeal to audiences as Norman Rockwell’s painting of early 20th century Americana, dog and all, sold at Sotheby’s on Wednesday May 22nd for a cool $2.6 million dollars…Yes, paintings of pets tend to suggest sentimentality and nostalgia, but they also hold a stoic poignancy, they are a steadfast element of our lives and will forever remain so.
Layman and artist alike have recognized the importance of these fluffy, furry, and at times frisky critters. So let’s celebrate them with a timeline of 500 years of pets in painting, from commissioned portraits of Middle Age royalty to the surprising, yet punchy dog paintings by George W. Bush, it’s all here, the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between…now sit, stay, and look!