Man's Best Friend

The term “man’s best friend” is older than you may think.  Paintings of dogs have revealed a long, loyal, and loving relationship with humans.  This gallery analyzes the visual role of dogs and their relationship with humans, and how they are represented in art throughout history. 

Pot from Mesopotamia, Unknown, -2600/-1950, From the collection of: Rijksmuseum van Oudheden
Dogs in ancient cultures were seen as gods or guardians. Here, we see a ceramic pot engraved with beautiful patterns. The dog is carved with sharp lines, giving it a very aggressive representation. The dog stands on all fours, eyes wide and teeth bared, and appears to either be attacking or guarding against an enemy.
Statue of Anubis, Unknown, 2nd century BC, From the collection of: The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Ancient Egypt also saw the dog as very godlike and thus inspired the figure of Anubis. Here we see Anubis, god of the dead, in full-dog form, carved from wood. The smooth carved lines create organic shape shapes within this figure that is similar to the natural lying posture of a dog. He is unaccompanied and is appears stiff and upright, giving off a very distinguished and sacred image.
Fragment of a Relief of a Horseman and Companion from a Funerary Building, Unknown, 290 - 250 B.C., From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Over time, we begin to see dogs less represented as deities and more as companions for hunting or fighting. This piece represents the dog's role as hunters. Instead of being represented alone, here we see the dog side-by-side man, baring its teeth. The dynamic shapes of these characters illustrate movement towards a prey or enemy.
Mixing bowl (bell krater), the Pan Painter, about 470 B.C., From the collection of: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Here is another representation of dogs as hunters. The shape of each dog gives the illusion of movement as they take down the enemy. Their attack on the one man suggest their loyalty to the archer.
Hunter and dog, John Gibson RA, 1838, From the collection of: Art Gallery of New South Wales
This piece takes on a very realistic representation of a hunter and his dog, but unlike the previous two pieces, we see now that the hunter has more control over his dog. The exsistence of a collar suggests ownership. Even though the shape of the dog assumes an attacking posture, he is held back by his collar. The dynamic shapes of these subjects create striking realism. We can see movement in the dog's posture - he wants to go forward but is held back by his owner. Each subject stands in a form of contrapposto, where each body is twisted and adjusted to accommodate the weight distribution in their posture.
Meleager, mythical hunter, Unknown, -100/-1, From the collection of: Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Another hunter, standing in contrapposto, and his dog, but this time, the dog shows signs of loyalty and companionship as he looks upward at his owner. The dog is carved in such great detail. Smooth lines add to its realism.
Sir Edward Hales, Baronet, of Hales Place, Hackington, Kent, Philippe Mercier, 1689 or 1691–1760, Franco-German, active in Britain (from 1716), 1744, From the collection of: Yale Center for British Art
Representation of dogs began to transition from wild hunters to pets. Here we see a portrait of a man and his loyal companion. Many portraits with dogs followed the same pattern: the man or woman in the foreground as the main subject, while their dogs are either off to the side or behind them. Often times, the dogs are painted in a seemingly darker light, putting emphasis on humans and suggesting dog's supporting role for humans. The colors and added texture in this piece separates the dogs fur from the man's clothing, giving off a greater sense of realism. The dog looks up at his owner showing a sign of loyalty.
Three Beauties: Snow, Artist: Utagawa Toyokuni I, ca. 1804-17, From the collection of: National Museum of Asian Art
Representations of dogs from other cultures illustrate the same sense of loyalty and companionship. Here, the dog looks up to the woman as a sign of loyalty, following right behind her. The short dark strokes make up the shadows in the dogs fur, giving it texture. This piece is simple in nature, and relies on different line strokes and tones to give its subject shape and texture. Aside from the dog's fur, we can see the texture of the woman's umbrella, the different layers of her dress, and even the texture of the wooden post beside her.
A Young Girl and Her Dog, REYNOLDS, Joshua, 1780, From the collection of: Tokyo Fuji Art Museum
Texture plays a big role in bringing focus to the subjects of this piece. It's accentuated in the girl's clothes and the dog's fur, while everything else blends in the background. This draws our eyes directly to the girl and her dog. It also does very well to create a greater sense of realism - the smoothness of the flesh of her arms contrasts against the different textures of her dog's fur. There is an absence of space between them that forces us to view these two subjects together as one, further illustrating and emphasizing their love and close companionship. The dog lays obediently in her lap, seemingly enjoying her embrace with a hint of a smile.
The Reverend Thomas Levett and Favourite Dogs, Cock-shooting, James Ward, 1769–1859, British, 1811, From the collection of: Yale Center for British Art
Hunting dogs at this time were also represented as loyal companions. Unlike ancient representations of the dog, where they are the sole focus, we don't immediately notice the presence of dogs until we look at this piece closely. The composition of this painting pays respects to the Rule of Thirds, immediately drawing our attention to the Reverend. This is also another representation of dogs serving a supportive role to humans, rather than being the main focus. There is space between the dogs and man, but they don't stray too far from him. He gives direction as they follow from the front, illustrating obedience.
A Huntsman and Dogs, Winslow Homer, American, 1836 - 1910, 1891, From the collection of: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Here, the hunting dogs are side-by-side the huntsman. Their shapes suggest movement, appearing to run along side him, but never away from him. They look to him as a sign of loyalty. There is a stark contrast between the man and his dogs. While the dogs are dynamic and appear to be moving, the man is static, unmoving, thus becoming the focal point of the composition.
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