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Dogs and art: companions and family members

In last week’s blog I shared a picture of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which includes a dog snoozing at Venus’s feet. The dog symbolized fidelity in love and marriage. Today, I thought it would be interesting to see the different ways that dogs have been depicted in art.

The Arnolfini portrait by Jan Van Ecyk (1434) is a bit of a mystery. Its obvious theme is marital love, but it is unclear whether the painting was created to celebrate a marriage, or to commemorate a deceased wife. Some art historians believe that the painting was created to celebrate a legal status that the husband is granting to the wife, which would give her the equivalent of modern Power of Attorney over his business dealings. Whatever occasion prompted this painting, it is interesting to note that the dog is not interacting with the couple and doesn’t seem connected with them—instead, the dog is the only one that looks out at the viewer. The dog is an early form of the breed now known as the Brussels griffon, just in case you were wondering. Whatever domestic event this portrait was meant to celebrate, the dog is not really a part of the dynamic, but is instead a symbol of fidelity and loyalty in the partnership.

My own bias is admittedly towards 19th century art. Increasingly, dogs were shown in their roles as companions and friends, and paintings depicted the relationship between dogs and people. To see what I mean, just compare the Van Ecyk portrait to this one of the Marlborough family by John Singer Sargent, where the dogs are engaged with the people:

Or look at this Sargent portrait of the Sitwell family, where the children play with the dog at the moment captured by the portrait:

This 1878 painting by Briton Riviere, entitled Sympathy, shows a child who has been scolded being comforted by her dog. Surely that is a childhood memory for a lot of us! I can certainly remember being in trouble and thinking that the dog was the only one who understood.


And go ahead . . . call me sentimental, but I can’t help loving the expression on this dog’s face. It's pure love:

Finally, I couldn’t end this post without mentioning Norman Rockwell, whose illustrations are pre-eminently about home and family. In this illustration, the dog looks to the boy as if their relationship to the puppies is a shared one, as indeed it is:

In giving advice to other artists, Rockwell recommended that artists paint four-legged creatures “just as carefully and understandingly as you paint the people.” Now that’s advice that I’ll take to heart.

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