Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Dogs in Art


Ancient Roman dog mosaic / Wikimedia Commons

Getty Museum curators share some of their favorite dogs in the collection.


By Julie Jaskol
Assistant Director, Media Relations
J. Paul Getty Museum


Introduction

When we first asked curators to suggest their favorite images of dogs in the collection, we had no idea what we were unleashing.

Seems like the Getty Museum collection is full of cute, loyal, brave, loving canines of all kinds, in sculpture, paintings, manuscripts, photographs, tapestries, antiquities – you name it, an artist somewhere at some time has paid tribute to his or her furry friend.

We’ve identified ten top dogs, but this is just a fraction of what you can find in the Museum collection pages online. Just try searching dogs, and settle in for a while.

Faithful and Waiting

Allegorical Group with a Bust of an Architect, 1780–1800, Belgian. Terracotta, 26 3/8 × 16 7/16 × 14 3/8 in. 97.SC.9. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

This little guy lurks around the back of this terracotta sculpture, created as a tribute to an architect. It was made by an unknown Belgian artist near the turn of the 19th century. While the woman hugs the bust, and children play in front, the dog quietly stands behind them – patient and faithful, just like the one who may be underfoot at your house.

An Athenian Dog

Attic Red-Figure Pelike, about 470 BC, attributed to the Triptolemos Painter. Terracotta, 14 3/16 × 9 3/4 in. 86.AE.195. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

Relationships between youths and older men were a central component of ancient Athenian aristocratic society, and hares were popular love gifts, says Antiquities curator David Saunders.

On the “B side” of this Attic Red-Figure Pelike, a bearded male presents a hare to a young man, holding it out by the ears, while his dog watches below. “Is the dog wishing his master would stop going after youths and pay him more attention? Or is he eyeing that hare for himself?” asks Saunders.

A Dog in the Garden

Verdure with Château and Garden (detail), 1738–1778, Katharine Ghuys, the Widow Guillaume Werniers. Wool and silk; modern linen lining and polyester dust band, 106 11/16 × 105 13/16 in. 2005.17. Digital image courtesy Getty Open Content

Sculpture and Decorative Arts curator Anne-Lise Demas says this frisky spaniel barking at a couple of birds in this wool and silk tapestry by Katharine Ghuys, the Widow Guillaume Werniers is “super cute.” (That’s a technical art historical term, right?)

In early modern Europe, tapestries were the ultimate expression of wealth and taste. Tapestries like these, showing scenes of country houses set amid gardens and wooded hillsides, were known as “verdures” because of their rich green (or “verdant”) tones.

The hangings brought nature into the home and were enormously popular with prosperous customers who could afford luxurious decor. With its deep perspective, verdures like this one also created a sense of space within the domestic interior.

Dog Sitting on a Table

[Dog sitting on a table], about 1854, American. Hand-colored daguerreotype, 2 11/16 × 2 1/4 in. 84.XT.1582.16. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

Photographs curator Virginia Heckert is fond of this 1854 American hand-colored daguerreotype. “I think the photographer has seated the dog on the table as a perch to isolate it from its surroundings. The little round tabletop becomes a stage. I love the way the dog’s collar—note the hand-coloring in gold—echoes the fringe with tassels that rings the table. I imagine someone off-camera holding up a treat to keep the dog’s attention,” she says.

The daguerreotype, named after its inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, was the first commercially successful photographic process. It allowed people to immortalize family members of all breeds.

Portrait of Two Boys and a Dog

[Portrait of Two Boys wearing caps seated on sofa with a dog] (detail), about 1845, American. Daguerreotype. 84.XT.438.4. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

This image, from about 1845, was in the collection of Samuel J. Wagstaff, Jr., which Getty acquired in 1984, forming the cornerstone of Getty’s photographs collection. Wagstaff was an influential art curator, patron, and collector. He assembled a private collection of photographs that spanned the history of photography, from neglected French photographers of the 1850s to modernists Man Ray and Edward Weston to late 20th-century photographers Larry Clark, Joel-Peter Witkin, and Peter Hujar.

“The boys on the sofa with their dog are nattily dressed in jackets, vests, and caps – their Sunday best, perhaps? They’re doing a great job keeping still, focusing their gazes intently on the camera, which is not quite so easy for the dog,” says Heckert. “Wagstaff’s eye was equally captivated by great works of art and vernacular images, as well as works that merged these two characteristics, as this one does.”

Grave Stele for Helena

Grave Stele For Helena, AD 150–200, Roman Empire. Marble, 24 × 12 3/8 × 6 5/16 in. 71.AA.271. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

A well-fed Maltese dog gazes at us from this Roman grave relief. The inscription reads, “To Helena, foster daughter, the incomparable and worthy soul.”

Was Helena the dog or the girl who loved it?

Several curators recommended this one. The Romans made grave reliefs for animals, but they took a different form, and their inscriptions specify that they were intended for an animal. On the other hand, funerary monuments for children often show the child with a favorite pet. In this instance, however, the pet is shown alone, which might be more appropriate if Helena was not a high-born Roman. The inscription appears to support this interpretation because the word alumnus, although here translated as “foster daughter,” can also mean a slave raised in the house.

A Park Scene (and Three Dogs)

Figures Walking in a Parkland, 1783–1800, Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle. Watercolor and gouache with traces of black chalk underdrawing on translucent Whatman paper, 18 5/8 × 148 7/16 in. 96.GC.20. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

This unusually long narrative landscape by Louis Carrogis de Carmontelle is a rouleau transparent, not unlike the later magic lantern, and an early ancestor to movies. The rolled-up drawing, over twelve feet long, would have been cranked through a peep box with a hole for daylight to illuminate the translucent paper from behind. Such amusements added theatrical effects to capitalize on quasi-scientific interest in optical illusion.

Beginning at the left, an aristocratic couple strolls through a parkland rich in monuments and follies, concluding at a moated two-story country house. Few of Carmontelle’s transparents exist today; only this one contains an entire story with a beginning, middle, and end. There are actually three dogs in this scene. Can you spot them?

Oh! If Only He Were as Faithful to Me!

Oh! If Only He Were as Faithful to Me, about 1770–1775, Jean-Honoré Fragonard. Black chalk and brush with brown wash over black chalk, 9 3/4 × 15 1/8 in. 82.GB.165. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

This lovely Jean-Honoré Fragonard drawing is called “Oh! If Only He Were as Faithful to Me!” With tongue-in-cheek humor, Fragonard juxtaposes the woman’s exaggerated distress with her dog’s unwavering loyalty. The woman’s pose, taken from representations of the penitent St. Mary Magdalene, the reformed New Testament courtesan traditionally depicted with long, flowing hair, further emphasizes the drawing’s light, satirical tone.

In the later 1760s, Fragonard created a number of drawings devoted to erotic themes. He made this one as a study for an engraving.

Despite the erotic energy, the dog is a real scene-stealer. Paintings curator Emily Beeny says “Fragonard’s dogs are wonderfully expressive—described with such wit and economy.”

Medieval Dogs

Dogs (detail), about 1250–1260, English. Pen-and-ink drawings tinted with body color and translucent washes on parchment, 8 1/4 × 6 3/16 in. Ms. 100 (2007.16), fol. 20v. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

Manuscript curator Beth Morrison says this image from the Northumberland Bestiary tells a tale: “According to medieval legend, when a man is murdered with no witnesses, the man’s loyal dog will point out the murderer in a crowd and attack the killer, thereby accusing him and punishing him for the heinous act.”

The bestiary was a collection of descriptions and images of real and imaginary animals intended to provide readers with moral lessons. It was one of the most important traditions to emerge from medieval England. Although bestiaries were a kind of medieval encyclopedia of animals, they explored the world of animals primarily in order to explain their significance within the Christian worldview.

Each of the over 100 animals featured in the Northumberland Bestiary has a unique and colorful story visualized in lively and animated terms. They are a superb testament to the artistic heights achieved by English Gothic illumination, and you can see them online.

Portrait of Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone at Seven Years of Age

Portrait of Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone at Seven Years of Age, 1755–1756, Jean-Étienne Liotard. Pastel on vellum, 21 5/8 × 17 5/8 in. 83.PC.273. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

And we’ll end with the lovely seven-year-old Maria Frederike van Reede-Athlone, daughter of a Dutch aristocrat, with her pup, by pastel virtuoso Jean-Etienne Liotard. He favored pastels for portraits of children (and presumably their pets), because they could be manipulated with speed and ease, had no odor, and allowed for frequent interruptions. She looks demurely off to the side, but the dog is wide-eyed and alert, as if to say “Dinnertime!”

Enjoy your canine companions, whether they’re virtual or curled up by your side!


Originally published by The Iris, 05.14.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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