The Long History of Dogs in Art

Our furry best friends have often been the focus of artistic renderings, from high society portraits to post-modern pieces. With over 2000 years of dogs in art history, cave paintings and figurines have been depicted both crudely and as narrative stories representing our earliest relationships with dogs. These early Bronze Age illustrations generally recorded the use of dogs for hunting on cave walls, a trope that hasn’t waned and received great attention in the Renaissance period when hunting became a favourite pastime for wealthy aristocrats.

From the 16th – 17th centuries, dog paintings such as those by John Wootton and Alexandre-François Desportes depicted dogs as majestic companions to lords and ladies. Even today, many stately homes feature walled murals or paintings depicting their owners with dogs; think, for instance, of the famous Queen Elizabeth II portrait by Michael Leonard (1985-1986), which features the Queen with a beloved corgi. Whether depicting dogs as useful for hunting or as pets, dogs have been the subject of art since their first domestication. Here we look at some of the most famous depictions of dogs in art and popular culture.

When we think of dogs in paintings aside from their popular depictions as hunting tools throughout the Middle Ages and onward, one painting series seems to remain in the popular imagination: “Dogs Playing Poker”. This ever-popular series of kitsch paintings by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge drew upon very popular compositions by Caravaggio and Cézanne, outlandishly twisting them with anthropomorphised dogs instead of humans. These images of dogs enthralled in a poker game around the table have been reproduced as postcards and prints, each seemingly drawing on different aspects of the game that players recognise, such as camaraderie, skill and even cheating. This kitsch take on dogs through art can also be seen in Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog” sculpture.

Other very popular depictions of dogs can be found in many of the art world’s greatest painters, including Picasso and the Dachshund Lump, featured in many of Picasso’s “Meninas” paintings. What is clear is that dogs have inspired many great artworks through history and will continue to do so long into the future.

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