Why is there a dog here?

I recently went to London with my friend Kristin and we stayed with our friend Heather at her flat in Marylebone. The three of us always have a good time and I’m always happy to go. As we have on other trips, we spent a fair amount of time in art museums. On this trip we visited the The Wallace Collection, The National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. They’re all amazing and I highly recommend them if you visit London, especially The Wallace Collection with it’s eclectic but amazing assortment of art and armor.

When I see a lot of different artwork all at once, I tend to reach a saturation point, after which I just start looking for dogs. You find them in the most interesting places in a wide variety of paintings from many different eras. Usually the dogs are clearly a natural part of the scene or perhaps even the focus of the painting, but not always. For example:

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This is a serious painting of a serious religious event. No I don’t remember what it’s called or who painted it when. I was saturated by this point in the day, but look at the little white dog. Why is he in the painting? Why would a dog be in church at all? The sign next to the painting didn’t say, but I wonder.

Then there’s this:

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This is the corner of a huge painting of four Dutch looking guys after they’ve signed an important document. It was painted to commemorate a significant political event, and yet the artist includes a lovely portrait of this little dog. I believe this is someone’s actual dog. Perhaps the artist included a beloved pet. Maybe the dog belonged to one of the men pictured and was actually at the event. Or maybe the patron of the painting asked for a portrait of his own dog to be included. The sign next to the painting didn’t mention the dog. Whose dog is this?

The more I looked, the more dogs I found in strange places or sometimes doing strange things. In one painting that I didn’t take a picture of because the dog was too small and the painting was too high on the wall, there was a dog crouched to defecate. It was a beautiful large landscape featuring a lot of winter activity, but toward the lower right corner there was a dog getting ready to do his business. Was the artist trying to say something about the commission? Was his patron a jerk? Was this dog a way of thumbing his nose? Or did the patron ask for it as an inside joke? I don’t know. Once again, the sign didn’t mention it.

And then there were paintings where clearly the dogs just don’t belong.

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This painting of a satyr morning over a nymph was painted in 1495 by Piero di Cosimo, but it almost looks like two different paintings. The satyr and the nymph are exquisitely portrayed, but the dog in the foreground as well as the dogs in the background are much more roughly painted in like an afterthought. Look at the white dogs forelegs. They’re improbably positioned unlike anything else in the painting. It makes me wonder if the patron looked at the painting of the satyr and the nymph and said, “You know, Piero, there’s a lot of room on the right side and in the back. How about throw in some dogs. People love dogs.” So Piero threw them in.

So those of you out there with an art history degree, enlighten me. What’s up with all the dogs? I’m not complaining mind you. I love dogs, but it is curious. Don’t you think?

 

 

8 thoughts on “Why is there a dog here?

  1. Dogs and other animals are included as symbols. Sometimes to emphasize a character trait of the subject or maybe the patron. Dogs are often seen as representing fidelity, loyalty, etc. also the positions of the animals could also be symbolic. Dogs as “mans best friend” has been included in art as long as people have expressed themselves visually

    • I understand symbolism. For instance I know the inclusion of a greyhound often represented aristocracy. But what does a defecating dog symbolize? Also the picture in the church was the only religious picture I saw a dog in. Sometimes they just seem out of place and the symbolism is lost on me. Also I can see the dog watching over the nymph as a symbol of fidelity or loyalty, but what about all the dogs playing in the background?

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