In dogs we trust. And it’s been that way for tens of thousands of years.
Nobody knows exactly when dogs were domesticated, but we have evidence of the incredible bond between dogs and humans spanning back at least 30,000 years.
With the first-ever dog artwork dating back just as long.
As a celebration of (hu)man’s best friend, we thought we’d take you on a journey through dogs in art and the incredible relationship we’ve developed over thousands of years.
Make a cuppa, and let’s explore the wonderful human - canine bond.
By our sides since at least the prehistoric era
In prehistoric times, dogs were already firmly established as man’s best friend. In around 2011, three fossils were discovered in Predmosti, Czech Republic, believed to be the remains of three husky type dogs.
These remains are between 27,000 - 30,000 years old, but what did they teach us?
Well, one of the dog’s was buried with a mammoth bone in its mouth which was placed in his jaws after death. It’s believed that the bone was a gift to feed his soul on his journey into the afterlife.
What a wonderful expression of the love and appreciation between human and dog!
We might not know exactly when dogs became domesticated, but we do know that during the palaeolithic period, dogs worked alongside humans to help them hunt, haul meat and bones back from a hunt, and to assist with transporting equipment for building shelter.
When man evolved to switch from hunter/gatherer mode to agriculture and food production, dogs remained by their sides and evolved alongside them.
Dog’s really have been man’s best friend for tens of thousands of years
Dogs in art through the ages
The earliest known artwork featuring dogs is rock art etched into walls, discovered in Saudi Arabia. These etchings are thought to be between 8,000-9,000 years old.
One such carving shows a hunter-gatherer surrounded by 13 dogs. There are loose lines carved between the hunter and the dogs, which could represent dog leads or, perhaps, the bond between dogs and humans.
Ancient Egyptians believed dogs to be spiritual creatures, and they were held in high regard. It’s thought that dog’s lived alongside Ancient Egyptians as both hunters and friends. Egyptians decorated tomb walls with carvings of their pets, both working alongside them on hunts and resting alongside them as pets.
By the end of the Iron age, we saw dogs appear alongside aristocracy. King Cunobeline was a famous King of Britain whose name means ‘Hound of Belenus.’
During the Roman period, dogs were kept for hunting, guarding and finally, as pets!
There are many depictions of dogs in art during Roman times, including the famous ‘Cave Canem’, a black and white mosaic on the pavement outside the House of the Tragic Poet.
The Jennings Dog is a famous Roman statue of a Molossian guard dog named after Henry Jennings, who discovered the statue in a pile of rubble. It’s also known as The Duncombe Dog or The Dog of Alcibiades. Alcibiades was a statesman who was said to have cut his dog’s tail off to invoke sympathy and distract from his dastardly antics.
Sadly, this is not a story of a particularly loving relationship between man and his dog.
Roman statues of dogs, tombstones of pet dogs, inscriptions or epitaphs naming pet dogs, and depictions of dogs on their owners’ funerary monuments occur in sufficiently large numbers to suggest that they were popular pets at this time.
In Ancient Greece, dogs were recognised as faithful and loving companions. In Homer’s Odyssey, we hear of Odysseus’ dog, who was the only one who recognised him when he returned from his travels in disguise. Dogs appeared painted on many ceramics and vases during this period.
By the late middle ages, we saw dogs enjoying life alongside their human’s engaging in sports, hunting and companionship. We not only see dogs in art depicted hunting or relaxing with their humans, but also joining medieval banquets too!
Dogs symbolised wealth during this era. They were given as gifts and kept as lapdogs by noblewomen. Dogs were going up in the world!
The heartwarming tale of the Duke of Berry visiting a dog refusing to leave its master’s grave and gifting money to take care of him, tells us just how highly regarded dogs were at this time in history.
During the middle ages, we began seeing dogs featured in paintings alongside their humans. They were thought to symbolise fidelity and loyalty and were often included in portraits of married couples to signify faithfulness.
In the Renaissance period, hunting was a sport only for aristocracy, and much of the representations of dogs in art were hunting scenes. Dogs were also kept as companions and lapdogs during this period.
Sighthounds were favoured by aristocracy into the Tudor period, with King Henry VIII choosing them as his domestic companions alongside Beagles and Spaniels. King Henry VIII used to put special dog collars on his domestic dogs so that it was clear to all they were dogs of the King.
As dogs placed their paws firmly under the table among Royals, they too became prevalent in many royal drawings, paintings and sculptures.
Portraits of dogs through history
Portraits of dogs really propelled in popularity during the 18th Century. When the UK Kennel Club was established in 1873, dog portraits became ever more common.
It was then that the aesthetics of dogs became highly regarded, both in terms of breeding and artwork.
Between 1840 and 1940, dog art thrived in Britain, owing in part to Queen Victoria, who was an avid dog lover.
She owned many dogs through her life, from Dash the Cavalier of her childhood to a Pomeranian, a Collie, a Deerhound and a Dauschund. Her Scottish Sheepdog Noble was buried in the grounds of Balmoral, and a sculpture of the dog accompanied the grave to mark the site.
There are many paintings of Queen Victoria and her beloved dog Dash. When Dash passed away, Queen Victoria had the epitaph inscribed to read:
‘Here lies DASH, the favourite spaniel of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, in his 10th year. His attachment was without selfishness, His playfulness without malice, His fidelity without deceit. READER, if you would live beloved and die regretted, profit by the example of DASH’.
Yes, dogs and humans were ever so truly bonded in this era.
The middle classes during the Victorian era were keen art collectors, and purebred portraits were the most popular pieces sought after.
During World War I and II, dogs provided comfort and companionship, but they also took on more practical roles. They were used as excellent messengers, carrying notes in tins hung around their necks. Dogs were also used to track, detect explosives and search for wounded soldiers.
Our relationship with dogs continues with vigour into the modern ages. And dog art is ever-popular, from doggy photoshoots to portraits, to the zillions of photos we all have on our phones.
Artists including Picasso, David Hockney, Franz Marc and Frida Kahlo all famously painted pictures of their beloved dogs.
Our love of dogs (and art) is as strong as ever!