Pawtraits: Our Changing Relationship With Pets Throughout History

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Jonathan Openshaw

Portrait of a Boy in Fancy Dress (about 1710–1714) by Nicolas de LargillierreThe J. Paul Getty Museum

We might see our pets as lifelong companions today, but it hasn't always been so. From hunting partners to demi-gods, our relationship with these furry friends has changed dramatically over the centuries. Although much of this history was based on cruelty rather than kindness, if you consider the 78 million dogs and 85.8 million cats that receive free room and board in the USA today, it’s worth asking the question: who domesticated whom? Here, we investigate the history of animal-human relationships.

Relief from the Nereid Monument (-390/-380)British Museum

Four-legged friend

Man’s best friend may also be his oldest – it’s thought that dogs were the first animals ever to be domesticated by humans. Not a ‘pet’ in the conventional sense, these domesticated wolves were used for hunting rather than cuddling. Estimates vary wildly about when this domestication took place, but we have solid archaeological evidence from at least 15,000 years ago when dogs were buried alongside their owners.

The Romans came to value dogs particularly highly, as this detail from The Nereid Monument (390 BC) shows, with a wealthy aristocrat reclining on a banqueting couch with his hunting dog at his feet.

Beautiful woman playing with cat (1770/1779) by Tsukioka Masanobu SetteiMuseum of Far Eastern Antiquities, Stockholm

The humble house cat

The domestication of cats came with the first agricultural societies around 12,000 years ago. While dogs were useful on the hunt, it wasn't until humans began to settle in one place and store grain that cats stepped in. With grain came mice and soon a mutually beneficial relationship sprang up where cats got an endless supply of food and humans got free pest control. This practical partnership soon developed into reverence in many cultures, with the Egyptian fondness for their feline friends being particularly famous. The cat cemetery found at Ben-Hassan contains 300,000 cat mummies, while the worship of feline goddess Bastet meant killing a cat was punishable by death.

Few societies today are more obsessed with cats than Japan, as a stroll through Hello Kitty-festooned Harajuku in Tokyo will demonstrate, but this too has deep cultural roots. It’s believed that cats arrived in Japan from China at the same time as Buddhism (around the 6th century) because they were used to guard fragile religious manuscripts from vermin. This connection to holiness meant that cats soon became status symbols, as this 18th century painting of a as Japanese aristocrat with her feline friend shows.

A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?) (about 1526-8) by Hans Holbein the YoungerThe National Gallery, London

Symbolic creatures

Hans Holbein the Younger

Thought to have been painted on his first visit to the Tudor court in the late 1520s, the squirrel and starling hint at the identity of the sitter. The wife of a wealthy landowner, Anne Lovell had squirrels on her family crest and also owned a house in East Harling – rhyming with starling.

The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector's Cabinet (circa 1621-1623) by Hieronymus Francken IIThe Walters Art Museum

Fantastic beasts

The bestiaries and wunderkammers of early modern Europe were proto-museums, sitting somewhere between church, art gallery and laboratory. It’s here that the study of the natural world reached new heights, mixing mythological beasts such as unicorns (often represented by the single ivory tusk of a narwhal) with tropical shells, birds of paradise and exotic animals.

These spaces were designed to assert the human domination over all living things, which is the clear message in this painting of the Habsburg Archdukes Albert and Isabella. It is rich in symbolism, with sunflowers turning their heads towards the regal light, exotic monkeys sitting chained at the monarchs’ feet and pet dogs crowding around their masters.

The Painter and his Pug (1745-01-01) by William HogarthTate Britain

Pets with personality

It’s often observed that dogs look like their owners, with pugnacious old men favoring bulldogs while well-groomed metropolitan types cradle Chihuahuas. This cliché is actually backed up in research, which suggests people tend to choose pets that reflect their own physical characteristics, while over time, pets can even take on their owner’s personality traits.

This connection wasn't lost on William Hogarth, who often used his pet pug Trump to reflect his own combative nature. In one 1763 engraving he depicts Trump urinating on some negative criticism of his work, while in this well-known self-portrait from 1745, Trump’s baleful gaze tells you as much about the artist’s temperament as the portrait itself.

The seat of the soul

The Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes famously argued that animals were more akin to machines than humans, lacking a soul and therefore operating as automatons. This view came to underpin Western science, philosophy and society for centuries, justifying the development of vivisection and animal testing. Artists have never been completely convinced by Cartesian philosophy, however. Frida Kahlo is perhaps best known for incorporating her pets into her work, with around a third of her total artistic output being self-portraits with her menagerie of animal friends, such as spider monkeys, fawns, birds and hairless Mexican ixquintle dogs.

These pets certainly held great symbolic significance in Kahlo’s life, but their representation is also more than symbolic. If you look at this 1945 self-portrait, the animals are depicted with human-like eyes that engage the viewer as much as the artist’s own. There is more than one soul gazing out from the canvas here, and the ribbon is used to entwine human, monkey, dog and Mesoamerican sculpture into a single composition of equals.

Dovima with elephants (1955) by Richard AvedonOriginal Source:

Beauty and the beast

The 20th century saw a tidal shift in attitudes towards animals. The 1800s had been a boon period for animal exploitation, with the rise of entertainment empires such as Barnum’s Circus making celebrities out of captive animals like Jumbo the elephant. It was the much publicized maltreatment and untimely deaths of these famous animals that ignited a public debate on whether living beings should be used for entertainment in this way. This iconic 1955 Richard Avedon photograph of Dovima with Elephants is, on surface level, a pleasing aesthetic combination of statuesque model, silky gown and sinuous trunks.

There is far more going on under the surface, however. Dovima’s classical beauty and that of the Dior gown she wears is offset by the gnarled elephants, bound in chains that they seem to strain against. These duel themes of beauty and aging – or the cruel costs of beauty – is something that Avedon would return to throughout his career.

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