Given the ancient association between humans and dogs—dogs were first domesticated somewhere between 19,000 to 32,00 years ago—it’s no surprise that our canine companions appear frequently in art. The oldest images of dogs, discovered in caves in Saudi Arabia, are about 8000 years old. (1)
© Journal of Anthropological Archaeology/Maria Guagnin/
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
In more recent times, two great French painters of the 19th Century, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and 脡douard Manet, each pained portraits of a Japanese spaniel named Tama.
Renoir, Clark Museum of Art
Manet, National Gallery of Art
In the 20th Century, Alberto Giacometti sculpted his iconic dog who suggests the stresses and privations of the modern world of war, dislocation, and poverty, but also resilience and survival.
Giacometti, Guggenheim Museum
These three images are just a few of the countless depictions of our canine companions throughout the ages. One of the most renowned painters—if not the finest—of animals, and one who is less well known in our day, was Sir Edwin Landseer. In addition to his many paintings of dogs, he also painted a stunning portrait of a Scottish stag entitled “The Monarch of the Glen,” now in the Scottish National Gallery. (2) This painting provided the Hartford Insurance Company (also notable for its longtime association with poet Wallace Stevens, about whom I have written elsewhere) with its famous logo. (3)
He also designed the stone lions that adorn the base of Nelson’s Column in London.
Landseer was in great demand by royals, aristocrats, and gentry in 19th Century Britain for his portrayals of their animals, especially dogs and horses. Besides providing the logo for The Hartford, he is also credited with creating the legend that St. Bernards (known in his time as Alpine mastiffs) carried small barrels of brandy around their necks for the aid of travelers injured or frozen in the snow. His painting, “Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller,” depicts two dogs of this breed attempting to revive a traveler fallen and unconscious in the snow, one of whom carries a small keg on its collar. In fact these dogs were not known to provide medicinal alcohol, but the picture was so popular and beloved, the image stuck.
Landseer, National Gallery of Art
One other notable fact about Sir Edwin is that, to my knowledge, he is the only artist to have a breed of dog named for him. “So popular and influential were Landseer's paintings of dogs in the service of humanity that the name Landseer came to be the official name for the variety of Newfoundland dog that, rather than being black or mostly black, features a mix of both black and white. It was this variety Landseer popularised in his paintings celebrating Newfoundlands as water rescue dogs.” (4)
Having recently adopted a dog (not a Landseer which would be far too large for my small apartment), my first as an adult, I have naturally become much more aware of canines both in my surroundings, and in works of art. Though it would be impossible for any images of a dog to be as satisfying or joy-bringing as a living hound, they are nevertheless a great source of pleasure for viewers and a true test of the artist’s skill.