Yesterday’s article showing a selection of paintings including cats confirmed their aloof independence. Dogs are dependent on their master or mistress, and love above all else to please them. While the concept of a ‘working cat’ seems an oxymoron, a great many paintings show hunting dogs and hounds who work hard for their living. Here I’ll concentrate more on truly domestic dogs.
There has been speculation as to whether Carpaccio’s Two Venetian Ladies from about 1490 were bored upper class wives, or courtesans in between gigs, although opinion currently favours their nobility. They sit amid a menagerie of peacock, doves and their two dogs, staring into the distance.
Dogs are inveterate scavengers, and given the opportunity occasional thieves from the kitchen. For this they have earned themselves a place in one of the canonical religious paintings of Europe, the Last Supper. In this version painted by Titian in about 1542-44, the dog in the foreground is busily eating scraps which have fallen from the table.
Jan Matsys uses a couple of dogs to tell part of the story of David and Bathsheba (1562). After King David has taken a fancy to Bathsheba, the wife of one of his generals, the king sends one of his court to express his interest to the scantily-clad woman. The maid who has been bathing her feet appears to know well what is going on, judging by the wicked smile on her face, although her mistress’s reaction is harder to read. The best clue given here is with the two dogs: the sleek hound which has arrived with the king’s messenger is about to pounce on Bathsheba’s small lapdog.
Just as hunting dogs were a sign of social status, so other breeds became associated with wealth and success. Rembrandt’s self-portrait from 1631-33 shows the artist in fancy dress with a large poodle, making it clear that he had truly arrived.
Portraits of dogs with their masters became highly fashionable, as shown in Van Dyck’s painting of James Stuart (1612–1655), Duke of Richmond and Lennox (1633–35) stroking his Great Dane’s head.
According to Julius Pollux, writing in his Onomasticon in the second century CE, it was Hercules’ dog who discovered the brilliant dye Tyrian purple. Hercules had been walking his dog on a Mediterranean beach where it was sniffing around shells and other debris that had been washed up with the waves. When the dog started to eat one of the shells, as dogs do, his mouth quickly turned bright purple. Fearing his dog’s mouth was bleeding profusely, Hercules looked inside its mouth before realising that the colour had come from the shell. This is told faithfully by Rubens in this painting of Hercules and the Discovery of the Secret of Purple (c 1636).
Paul de Vos, in his painting of The Fable of the Dog and the Dam from 1638-40, shows the fable known as the Dog and its Reflection, or the Dog with the Meat and its Shadow (Perry 133). In this, a dog acquired a piece of meat, and was crossing a stream when it looked down at its reflection in the water. Seeing another dog apparently carrying better food, it opened its mouth to bark at that reflection, and dropped the meat into the stream.
Occupying the foreground in Diego Velázquez’ masterwork Las Meninas (c 1656-57) is a large mastiff which had been given to King Phillip III in 1604 by King James I of England. This impressive dog is thought to have been descended from two mastiffs kept at Lyme Hall in Cheshire.
Although formal portraits of cats are decidely rare – they must be even trickier than children – it became and remains popular to paint portraits of much-loved dogs.
This is James Ward’s delightful Portrait of Dash, a Favourite Spaniel, the Property of Lady Frances Vane-Tempest from 1819. This dog’s owner was the nineteen year-old Marchioness of Londonderry, and the great-grandmother of Sir Winston Churchill.
Dogs are often loyal to their master/mistress to the point of self-sacrifice. In Heinrich Bürkel’s Shepherds in the Roman Campagna (1837), one of the working dogs challenges a snake on the roadside.
Constant Troyon’s On the Way to Market from 1859 shows another working dog in less threatening circumstances, as it runs around chivvying livestock in the right direction.
A dog’s loyalty is seldom dependent on wealth or creature comforts. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s portrait of the cynic philosopher Diogenes (1860) follows legend by showing him living in a large jar or barrel. The four dogs sat so attentively as he lights a lantern have hidden meaning too: the term cynic is derived from the Greek κυνικός (kynikos), meaning dog-like, the word which may be inscribed on the lantern that he is trying to light.
As has been explained:
There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them. (Wikipedia.)
Gustave Courbet was content to show dogs as a fashion accessory for his erotic nudes. Nude Woman with a Dog from 1861-62 shows his lover at the time, Léontine Renaude, on a beach, playing with a small white dog to relieve their mutual boredom.
Several dogs occupy the immediate foreground of Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1863), where they appear just about to break into a fight.
Of all these depictions of the loyalty of domestic dogs, it is Briton Rivière’s Requiescat from 1888 which epitomises the relationship. This is less about the death of the knight clad in armour than the devotion of his dog, who sits pining for its master.
The term black dog refers to something quite different, though. Often used to refer to bouts of depression, for example by Winston Churchill, it draws on the sinister side of the species. This was developed by Goethe in his play Faust, where the anti-hero first meets the diabolic Mephistopheles in the form of a large black dog.
José Uría’s Faust from 1889 shows the moment that Faust brings the black dog into his study, setting up the rest of the story.
The Naturalist painter Henri Jules Jean Geoffroy specialised in groups of children and their social interactions inside and beyond school. His It’s Hard to Share shows one of the tribulations of childhood: these young boys have just emerged from a sweet shop, and the child in the centre is reluctant to share the paper cone of sweets which he has just bought. His face says it all, as he looks with great suspicion at his less fortunate friend. Note the dog looking up in expectation that it too deserves a share.
I finish this small selection with just a couple of Pierre Bonnard’s many paintings of dogs in a domestic environment.
Bonnard’s Coffee from 1915 shows one of his favourite motifs, in which Marthe’s dog looks longingly at objects arrayed on the tabletop.
It’s one of his last paintings of Marthe, though, which I find most haunting. In Nude in Bathtub from about 1938-41, she lies back undergoing her medicinal soak in the bath as her dog awaits, looking up at the viewer. A year or two later, Marthe Bonnard died in their villa at Le Cannet in the south of France.