A Dog’s Purpose

“It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defense and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful : it is the best friend man can have.”

Voltaire, 1764

Apart from a brief respite in the autumn of 2020, museums and galleries have remained shut for a year. Fortunately, in the digital era, we do not need to travel to places to enjoy exhibitions and admire artworks. Many public establishments have online presences, through which they connect with those who cannot visit in person. Google Arts & Culture assisted these organisations by amalgamating online exhibitions into one place. This allows individuals to take virtual trips to museums and galleries all over the world. Not only this, Google developed some digital displays too, such as Paw-some Paintings, which celebrates canine companions in art.

As Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712-86) once said, a dog is a man’s best friend. The creatures have appeared in artworks for thousands of years, including on the walls of caves. Since the 19th century, artists depicted dogs as loving, gentle creatures, symbolising protection, loyalty and faithfulness. Before then, “dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful.” (Oxford English Dictionary) Until dogs became pets and companions, they were bred for hunting, tracking and guarding. Nonetheless, Google Arts & Culture has found ten artworks spanning several centuries that show humans have always loved these furry creatures. 

Marble statue of a pair of dogs

During an excavation of Civita Lavinia, an ancient city near Rome, Italy, archaeologists discovered two similar marble statues of a pair of dogs. Although it is not possible to determine the date of production, the British Museum estimates it between the 1st and 2nd century AD. Gavin Hamilton (1723-98), a Scottish artist and archaeologist, discovered the dogs where he believed a palace belonging to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 86-161) once stood. Recent discoveries have disproved this theory, but Hamilton sold one of the statues to English antiquary Charles Townley (1737-1805) under this impression. After Townley’s death, his family sold the dogs and other items in his collection to the British Museum, where they remain today.

This pair of dogs, thought to be male and female, portray a tender, loving embrace. Compared to other statues found in the vicinity of Civita Lavinia, they represent peace rather than violence. A sphinx with a dog’s body and a statue of Greek hero Actaeon attacked by hounds are two examples of typical canine sculptures from the Roman Empire. The man’s best friend concept came much later, but this marble statue proves sculptors did not only view the animals as predators trained to hunt but as loving, caring creatures.

Portrait of a Noblewoman – Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Lavinia Fontana’s portrait of an unknown Bolognese noblewoman emphasises her ability to depict luxurious clothing and jewellery in exquisite detail. Although the sitter is the main subject of this Mannerist painting, the eye travels to the small dog in the left-hand corner. Presumably a lap dog, due to its size, the animal has significance in this portrait aside from being the lady’s animal companion. During the 16th century, dogs represented marital fidelity. During this era, brides tended to wear red, so the noblewoman’s wealth, clothing and pet are suggestive of a recent marriage.

Portrait of a Noblewoman (c.1580) is not Fontana’s only painting to feature a canine friend. During her career, she produced over 100 paintings, including mythology and genre paintings, but mostly portraits of wealthy men and women. Portrait of a Lady with Lap Dog (1595) suggests smalls dogs represented the wealth of the sitter. For hunting and guarding, men needed large, fast dogs, whereas a tiny dog had little to contribute to the family other than provide comfort and companionship. Portrait of the Gozzadini Family (1584) depicts a senator sitting at a table with his daughters and son-in-laws. On the table sits a dog of similar size and appearance to the dog Fontana painted in other portraits. Portrait of the Maselli Family also features the same dog, this time in the arms of the mother.

The Painter and His Pug – William Hogarth (1697-1764)

The Painter and His Pug is a self-portrait by the English artist William Hogarth. Although not completed until 1745, x-rays reveal the artist began painting during the 1730s. Many alterations took place through the process, including a change of clothes and the addition of books by Shakespeare (1564-1616), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) and John Milton (1608-74). Critiques suggest these volumes indicate Hogarth’s attitudes towards literature, drama and poetry. One of the last things added to the portrait was Trump, Hogarth’s pet pug whose features resemble those of its owner. Some suggest Hogarth intended the dog to represent his pugnacious character. 

The pug, named Trump, was one of many owned by Hogarth during his lifetime. Records state the artist once named a dog “Pugg”, but the names of any others are unknown. Pugs frequently appear in Hogarth’s paintings, including group portraits of the Fountaine (1735) and Strode (1738) families. It is unlikely the pugs belonged to either family, instead, Hogarth included it as a trademark, thus earning him the nickname the “Painter Pugg”. A pug featured in one of the scenes of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732-34) plus in a portrait of Lord George Graham (1715-47), a Scottish officer of the Royal Navy. 

So synonymous was Hogarth with pugs, French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac (1702-62) produced a terracotta model of Trump to accompany a statue of the artist. In 2001, Ian Hislop (b.1960) and David Hockney (b.1937) unveiled a statue of Hogarth in Chiswick. Made by Jim Mathieson (1931-2003), the sculpture features the artist in a similar outfit to his portrait with Trump sat at his feet.

A young lady holding a pug dog – François Boucher (1703-77)

A stark contrast between A young lady holding a pug dog by François Boucher with Hogarth’s painting is the physical features of the dog. Today, the breed is recognised for its distinctive wrinkly, short-muzzled face and curled tail. Trump’s face does not fit this description, suggesting that either Hogarth could not draw pugs or the animal was a cross-breed. Alternatively, until the 18th-century, when it became popular to own a pug, many people referred to ugly canines as pugs. It is for this lack of beauty that Boucher included a pug in his portrait of a young lady.

“The little Pug dog or Dutch mastiff has quitted London for Padua, I perceive. Every carriage I meet here has a Pug in it.” So said Welsh author Hester Piozzi (1741-1821) during a trip to Italy in 1789. Bred as lap dogs, pugs became the most desired companions of wealthy women across Europe. Rococo painter Boucher used the animal to contrast with his sitter’s beauty in A young lady holding a pug dog (c.1740). The lady in question is Boucher’s wife Marie-Jeanne Buseau (1716-96), dressed in the silks and fashions of 18th-century France. The paleness of skin accentuated with rouge, a beauty spot, and powdered hair was the epitome of beauty, but to emphasise this further, Boucher included her ugly pug as a contrast. At this time, dogs also had sexual connotations in paintings, but critics do not believe this to be the case in this portrait. 

Nude Woman with a Dog – Gustave Courbet (1819-77)

An example of a dog representing sexual relationships is Nude Woman with a Dog (1862) by Gustave Courbet. The nude model, Courbet’s mistress Léontine Renaude, leans towards the dog as though to give it an affectionate kiss. At the time of its first exhibition, critics described this painting as highly erotic. 

The woman’s body echoes the works of Titian (1488-1576), but her face is plain and ordinary. Courbet tried to bring the classical nude to the modern-day by removing the goddess-like beauty from the image. In Titian’s day, a small dog symbolised fidelity, but the model’s interaction with the animal breaks this definition. Although the painting does not suggest that she is in love with the dog, the signs of affection erase the innocence from the picture, replacing it with the metaphor of sensual love. Responding to the attention, the dog represents a complicit lover.

Still Life with Three Puppies – Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

Whilst living with experimental painters in Brittany, Paul Gauguin painted Still Life with Three Puppies (1888). The canvas is divided into three parts: a still-life of fruit, a diagonal barrier of wine glasses, and three puppies drinking from a large pan. This artwork marks Gauguin’s transition from Impressionism to the experimental style of his contemporaries, such as Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-90). 

Whilst still-life paintings tend to depict the scene in front of the artist, the inclusion of the wine glasses and puppies suggest Gauguin painted this particular artwork either from his imagination or from several sources. The wine glasses are disproportionate to the scale and perspective of the image, and the puppies appear to be on the table, suggesting they are doll-size creatures.

Gauguin’s new style is more evident when looking at the puppies rather than the other elements. He painted them with a blue outline, and their fur appears to be the same texture as the table cloth. Gauguin declared art is created “from nature while dreaming before it.” This observation explains the unrealistic qualities of the three animals. Gauguin also drew inspiration from Japanese art, which tended to have a two-dimensional viewpoint.

Howling Dog – Paul Klee (1879-1940)

Paul Klee goes a step further with his unrealistic painting of a Howling Dog (1928). Rather than depicting an accurate appearance of a dog, Klee focused on sound. With meandering lines, Klee drew the shape of a dog howling at a moon. The dog’s howl is also visualised in the same manner and accentuated by swirling colours. 

The howl, rather than the dog, is the dominant feature of the painting. Although painting is a visual medium, Klee tried to combine another of the senses. Life is both a visual and aural experience, and Klee is inviting the audience to try to hear his work as well as see it. A painting of a dog is usually static and posed, but in reality, dogs are full of movement and noise. While looking at Howling Dog, people can imagine the baying sound breaking the silence of the night. It is as though the dog is telling the world he is there, that he exists.

Children with taco – Diego Rivera (1886-1957)

Mexican artist Diego Rivera created many murals for the Secretariat of Public Education. Children with taco (1932) is a lithograph of one section of a mural, which Rivera wished to save in case of any damage to the original. The print shows a young boy eating a taco while a hairless dog sits patiently waiting for a crumb to fall. This dog, a Xoloitzcuintle, receives attention for its hairlessness and wrinkles, and since 2016, it is a cultural heritage and symbol of Mexico City.

Both Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo (1907-54), depicted the Xoloitzcuintle in their artwork. As well as being popular pets, the history of the breed dates back to the Aztecs. The name Xoloitzcuintle comprises Xolotl, the Aztec sun god, and “itzkuintli”, which means both “dog” and “slave”. According to Aztec religion, a Xoloitzcuintle accompanied the deceased along the path to the afterlife. For this reason, the Aztecs kept dogs as pets, which they then slaughtered and buried with their masters.

While their masters lived, Xoloitzcuintles served as guard dogs. Rather than guarding houses against intruders, the dogs protected their owners from evil spirits. The Aztecs also believed Xoloitzcuintles aided healing and often allowed the dogs to sleep in their beds. In some instances, this is true because a dog’s warmth can help relieve pain from arthritis and bring comfort to the distressed. There is also evidence of a dog’s presence normalising blood pressure. The more obscure health properties of a Xoloitzcuintle included curing toothache, headaches, asthma, and gastrointestinal problems.

Dogs – Hashimoto Kansetsu (1883-1945)

The peonies in a painting by Hashimoto Kansetsu are typical of nihonga (20th-century Japanese paintings). The dog, on the other hand, is inspired by western cultures. The artwork belongs to a series called Dogs from Europe, in which the artist combined traditional Japanese art with modern animal themes. In Japanese art, peonies and lions usually featured together, but Hashimoto daringly replaced the wild animals with dogs.

In Japan, peonies are known as the King of Flowers and represent bravery, fortune and honour. In China, where Hashimoto spent some time each year, the flowers represented wealth and were a favourite of past Emperors. Lions symbolise power, protection and strength, but the meaning of dogs is more ambiguous. In Japanese folklore, a racoon dog is a mischievous creature and a master of disguise. By replacing a lion with a dog, Hashimoto not only introduced elements of the western world to his artwork but also moved away from long-standing Japanese traditions.

Hashimoto fell in love with Europe after a trip in 1921, including a love of European animals.Throughout his career, Hashimoto owned up to 50 dogs, which he studied carefully for his paintings. Many breeds came from Europe, which made his artworks unusual to Japanese spectators.

Puppy – Jeff Koons (b.1955)

The final artwork Google Arts & Culture included in their online exhibition is a 40-foot high West Highland terrier made from flowers. Jeff Koons produced Puppy (1992) for the Kaldor Public Art Project in 1995, where it stood outside Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Today, the floral sculpture stands guard outside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, where it fills viewers with awe.

Koons intended the public sculpture to instil confidence and security, plus entice and create optimism. Others have derived alternative meanings from the artwork, including references to past and present eras. Koons used a computer to design the giant model, whereas the flowers resemble an 18th-century garden. It is also a combination of high and low brow culture, topiary and dog breeding being high and greeting card images low.

West Highland terriers are not the usual choice for guard dogs, but they are known for their loving heart and loyalty. They are typically small, making them an ironic choice for a large sculpture, but they are also friendly-looking and comforting. Today, most people identify the artwork as a symbol of love and happiness.

As Google Arts & Culture proved, dogs have been part of human culture for centuries. Whether serving as hunters or companions, dogs appear in artworks across the world. Other animals also appear in paintings, but it is typically dogs that sit patiently at the feet of their masters or on the laps of their mistresses, providing protection and love. Admittedly, not everyone is keen on dogs yet, in the United Kingdom, there are over 10.1 million pet dogs, suggesting 24% of the population own one, which is more than any other animal. So, was Frederick the Great of Prussia right when he stated a dog was man’s best friend? Perhaps we should ask a dog. Woof!

To view the Google Arts & Culture exhibition, click here.


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3 thoughts on “A Dog’s Purpose

  1. Inspirational writing, thank you Hazel. Loved the quote to begin your article and as always you were informative and entertaining. The pictures of paintings was particularly helpful. Once again thank you for sharing your talents.

  2. Thank you once again for an interesting trip around the work of artists of various kinds, this time through the world of dogs. It was good to be able to see some of the paintings close up without having to make the effort of visiting a gallery!

  3. Pingback: Lady Godiva | Hazel Stainer

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