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Dog Art History - Level 1

Dogs in Art Through the Ages

From ancient cave drawings to Victorian portraiture, dogs play a starring role in many works of art.
By Amy Fernandez

Since ancient times, the unique relationship between man and dog has inspired art. Dogs were depicted in cave paintings, and stylized canine representations from ancient Egypt, China and Mexico remain instantly recognizable today. These images provide many insights, including our changing perceptions about the dog’s role in human society.

Artistic traditions
Until the Middle Ages, dogs were primarily depicted as hunters and guardians, or incorporated into religious imagery like Cerberus, the multi-headed canine guardian of Hades in Greek mythology. Canine imagery became more diverse in the Middle Ages. Wealthy patrons commissioned treatises, handmade books about hunting lore and rituals. Each copy was hand lettered on vellum and illustrated. The detailed miniature paintings reveal that dogs were celebrated, treasured and mourned. For example, the hunting treatise of Alfonso XI of Castile includes a painting entitled Lament for a Hound, showing huntsmen despondently stroking a dead hound.

Renaissance to Victorian

Dog Art History 101 - George Stubbs

Artist George Stubbs (1724 to 1806) used natural gestures and realistic expressions for his canine subjects.

Renaissance art was a dramatic departure from the flat, stylized images of medieval painting. Rekindled interest in classical art encouraged artists to study nature. Techniques also improved thanks to better understanding of light and shadow, perspective and anatomy.

Two centuries later, George Stubbs (1724 to 1806) brought animal painting to a new level. Britain’s aristocracy regularly commissioned his work to celebrate their hunting dogs and race horses. Stubbs’s interpretation of these familiar themes stands out for its academic precision and anatomical accuracy of the animals. But this isn’t what sets Stubbs’ work apart. Earlier animal painters relied on clichéd poses and generalized features to define animal subjects. Stubbs used natural gestures, realistic expressions and unmistakable sympathy for his subjects. Stubbs died in poverty, but his work heralded the greatest era of dog art.

Victorian art
Aristocrats had a long tradition of admiring purebreds, and portraits of well-bred hunting dogs were an institution. But middle-class dog lovers revolutionized the dog world in Victorian times. Previously, their equally long tradition of breeding and appreciating good dogs had no public showcase. Their dogs were evaluated at informal dog shows held in private clubs or taverns throughout Britain. The painter and writer R. Marshall celebrated the Victorian working class in his work. Viewers glimpse the formality and gravity of these affairs in An Early Canine Meeting, painted in 1855.

Dog Art History 101 - An Early Canine Meeting

An Early Canine Meeting by R. Marshall (1855). Courtesy The Kennel Club, UK

Victorians chose from an ever-growing number of breeds, but Queen Victoria’s preferences had an undeniable influence. Her pet Dachshunds and Pomeranians ensured the popularity of both breeds, and her love for the Highlands triggered a mania for everything Scottish, including the Scottish Deerhound. Until royal interest and paintings by artist Sir Ewin Landseer (1802 to 1873) triggered dramatic revival, this breed had neared extinction. Landseer’s 1839 painting, Deerhound and Recumbent Foxhound, is the sentimental type of depiction that Victorians loved.

Dog Art History 101 - Deerhound and Recumbent Foxhound

Deerhound and Recumbent Foxhound by Sir Edwin Landseer.
Courtesy Collection AKC Museum of the Dog, St. Louis, Missouri

Victorian art might seem kitschy now, but portraying dogs as worthy individuals was revolutionary. No artist was more influential in this respect than Landseer, whose career coincided with the passage of the first animal-cruelty laws and the founding of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. His work had an enormous impact on mainstream perceptions about animals. The queen owned 39 paintings by Landseer, the undisputed star of a family of successful artists. Mass production made his work accessible to everyone.

Dog Art History 101 - Saved

Saved by Sir Edwin Landseer.

Many of Landseer’s images are iconic. Victorians characterized Saint Bernards and Newfoundlands as hero breeds, with a natural instinct to save human lives. The 1856 painting Saved, an extremely popular Landseer work, forever linked him to the black-and-white Newfoundland, although he was not the first or only artist to portray this coat color. Today, the black-and-white color of Newfoundlands is called Landseer.

Dog Art History 101 - Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler

Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler by Sir Edwin Landseer.
Courtesy William Secord Gallery, New York, New York

Landseer was also responsible for some misconceptions. In his 1820 painting, Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, the brandy cask secured around the Saint Bernard’s neck was simply an artistic device, but this image immediately gained traction. Copied by countless artists and confirmed by noted dog authorities, the brandy cask is permanently embedded in Saint Bernard lore.

A record of the past
Art is the source of canine myths, but it’s also an invaluable historical record. George Earl’s 1880 Field Trial Meeting was so large and complicated it was accompanied by a diagram, which named all of the dogs and figures. The lone Irish Setter, Plunkett, helps to confirm the importance of this dog, now considered a foundation sire of the celebrated Llewellyn English Setters.

Dog Art History 101 - A Field Trial Meeting

A Field Trial Meeting by George Earl.
Courtesy William Secord Gallery, New York, New York

George Earl’s brother and sons were also successful artists, but his daughter Maud Earl became legendary. She painted Ch. Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace of Blakeen after he became the first Poodle to win the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 1935. His influence on the breed was unmatched even though he was shown only 18 times. His owner, Sherman Hoyt, also made history as the first female handler to achieve this win. Paintings like this are considered priceless for their artistry, as well as their historical significance.

Dog Art History 101 - Ch. Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace of Blakeen

Ch. Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace of Blakeen by Maud Earl shows the
first Poodle to win the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (1935).

Courtesy the collection of the American Kennel Club

Amy Fernandez is a member of the World Dog Press, former president of Dog Writers Association of America, a regular columnist for Dogs in Review and a regular feature writer for Dog World and the AKC Gazette.

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Stephanie - 247306   Easton, PA

12/15/2013 6:46:31 AM

interesting article and artwork.

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Diggy   LA, CA

9/11/2011 11:23:59 AM

It's great wery nice art

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Michelle   Medina, OH

9/9/2011 5:22:07 PM

I had the pleasure of viewing many of these artists' paintings at the William Secord Gallery in NYC. Loved it!

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Alicia   Arlington, VA

9/4/2011 6:23:41 AM

This is definitely one of my favorite subjects! Keep up the awesome work Dog Channel!

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