Jillian Dyer

Dogs. Those four-legged furry creatures with a dazed look in their eyes. A look that says "I want to be your friend". Tail wagging, they put their front paws on your chest as they try to reach your face with their tongue. Dogs today are one of the most popular pets. They serve as companions and friends, and are considered a part of the family.
From wild animals, to ferocious hunters, to lovable hounds, dogs have won a place in our hearts. The same is true for artists. As dogs grew to enjoy the company of humans, we accepted them into our societies.
A good indicator of a dog's place in every day life is artwork. Paintings, sculptures, and carvings of dogs have appeared in every culture they have come in contact with. The very first depictions of dogs were those on Paleolithic cave walls. Small dog figurines have also been found in caves. These figures likely served as toys for young children.

"Xolotl" from the 15th century Codex Fejervary-Mayer

One common symbol that a dog, especially a black dog, can represent is death. In Mesoamerican societies such as the Aztec and the Inca, black dogs were thought to carry souls to the land of the dead. The remains of dogs have been uncovered in caves in Tenochtitlan buried there alongside their owners. The dogs would have guided their souls to the afterlife. The symbol of the black dog has permeated other cultures as well. In England there have been many legends regarding black dogs who appear at the cites of fatal accidents or deaths. The black dog makes an appearance in popular culture in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter as the omen of death: “the Grim”. The black dog also makes an appearance in ancient Chinese mythology. Tiangou the heavenly black dog was believed to devour the sun (during solar eclipses) unless driven away by the beating of gongs.
Dogs often appear in the form of mythological beings. The Aztec god of death, Xolotl, was a giant dog-beast. Xolotl is portrayed in art often holding a knife, a symbol of death. This depiction is similar to Egypt’s depiction of Anubis, the jackal-headed God of the dead.
Dogs in Aztec and Mayan life were companions, hunters, a source of food, and sacrifices. Before the donation or completion of a building, dogs were sacrificed on the site. Dogs were sacrificed during New Years ceremonies since they were symbols of “new beginnings”. Dogs were commonly eaten, as they were relatively plentiful and able to quickly reproduce. Today in our own culture, we would look down on this behavior, but one should remember the cultural context of the time and the need for survival. Besides these uses, dogs could also be used as companions or as hunters since they were easy to domesticate. Dogs, a necessity for survival, were given great importance in Mesoamerican society as they were around the world.

"Death of Procris" Piero di Cosimo 1495

In Greece, dogs were given greater value over cats. Cats were rarely kept as pets. Dogs were appreciated for their loyalty, bravery, and intelligence. It was in Greece and Rome that dogs became the Western symbol for fidelity.
Dogs were given names and depicted alongside heroes. Many Greek legends include protagonists with dogs as their companions. One Greek legend regarding the mythical dog Laelaps is painted here with Laelaps on the right. She was a dog who never failed to catch whatever she hunted. The painting depicts the death of Procris by a later Italian painter. Procris was the wife of one of Laelaps’ few owners. Laelaps’ head droops in mourning, giving the dog human emotions and morals. According to mythology, Laelaps was given the task of catching the Teumessian fox: a fox that could not be captured. The hunt would have gone on for infinity, but Zeus intervened and cast the two into the sky. Laelaps became Canis Major and the fox became Canis Minor.
Dogs were not always the heroes in myths. Hades’ three-headed dog Cerberus guarded the gates of the underworld, often being portrayed as the antagonist.
Dogs were also symbols of status. Owning a dog was indicative of class. Big dogs were used for hunting, while small dogs were usually lapdogs or companions for upperclassmen. Lovers would often give one another dogs as gifts and symbols of their loyalty.

"Arnolfini Portrait" Jan Van Eyck 1434

During the Middle Ages dog iconography continued. Dogs appeared in hunting portraits, heraldry, and in portraits of people.
Hunting scenes were often painted to enforce the aristocracy’s position in medieval society. Hunting was considered a sport and was limited to the aristocracy. Upperclassmen hunted so often that within the middle ages wild bears were hunted to extinction in Britain. Peasants and clerics were forbidden from hunting. Hunting also showed off a nobleman’s bravery as they chased dangerous prey like boars. To do this, they needed dogs to help them. In this way the dogs in the portrait were associated with the act of hunting and given more symbolic meaning. Dogs were given traits of chivalry, courage, and valor. Because they were associated with these traits, dogs were put on noble families’ coats of arms. Nobles spent large sums of money on specially bred dogs. Dogs of different breeds were often used for different tasks. Artists of the Middle Ages captured the act of hunting in paintings in books and on tapestries.
In Van Eyck’s portrait of the Arnolfinis, the dog at the bottom center takes on the traditional role as a symbol of fidelity. The purpose of the portrait is unknown. It might have been painted to commemorate the marriage of the couple, or it could have been made in memory of the woman on the right who died early. The little dog symbolizes the couple’s loyalty towards each other. It could also be an indication of their high status. Nobles often kept lapdogs. In the portrait the little dog is the only character who meets our gaze.
Dogs were often carved into the gravestones of lovers as a symbol of their eternal fidelity to each other. The motif of loyalty continues into the future.

One scroll in the "Ten Prized Dogs" Scrolls by Lang Shih-ning 1700's

The first domestication of dogs occurred in Ancient China. Dogs were commonly eaten, kept as pets, or religiously sacrificed similar to dogs in Ancient Mesoamerica. Although dogs were an important part of Chinese diet, killing dogs was looked down upon. Dog butchers in Chinese literature were characterized as lowly and untrustworthy. As in Europe, dogs were used for hunting by nobles. Royal palaces had kennels and often employed a royal dog trainer. Dogs were often buried lovingly with their owners with bells tied around their necks and wrapped in reed mats. Dog statues found in the tombs of their owners have curled tails indicating their relation to the modern shiba inu breed.
Dogs were given important religious significance. According to one Chinese myth, dogs gave humans the first seeds of grain, thus responsible for the domestication of grain. The Buyi, Gelao, Hani, Miao, Shui, Tibetan,Tujia, and Zhuang peoples believe this myth. In their cultures it is common to share food with dogs in return for their gift of grain.
Similar to the Greeks, dogs were often shown as companions to heroic figures. Dogs weren’t given names and were instead simply referred to as “dog”. The dogs in the stories were also never given mythological status. In the myth of the zodiac dog all of the zodiac animals had a Great Race to decide the order of the zodiac calendar. The dog was portrayed as playful, and became distracted, making him come in second to last.
In the Chinese scrolls “Ten Lucky Dogs”, the painter Lang Shih-ning was commissioned by the emperor to create ten portraits of his ten dogs. These dogs had been presented to the emperor as tribute during the year of the dog. Each dog was a different breed and played a different role.
A Pair of Qing-Era Guardian Lions or "Foo Dogs"
The importance of breeding had become emphasized as nobles preferred the company of purebred dogs. The dogs all appear in natural settings in different poses with different expressions. The dog of this portrait was named Shanxing Wolf “Looking at Stars”. Emperor during this time, Emperor Qianlong, reigned during a time of prosperity and cultural achievement. He sponsored the arts and took joy in his dogs and their portraits. Later when the communist regime took over China, dogs were not allowed to be kept as pets. Only in the 1990’s has this been changed.
The other photo is commonly referred to by Westerners as a “foo dog”. The dogs are actually lions. The lions act as guardians, often appearing in pairs in front of important building or tombs. Lions were not native to China, but were heard of. Perhaps this why the lions appear to have such dog-like appearances.

"A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society" by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer 1838

In the Victorian Era the dog reached a new level of respect in Western society. In the late fifteenth century individual portraits of dogs were painted. These dogs showed their individuality and their owner’s status. During the Renaissance dogs were painted with scientific accuracy and were given human emotions and expressions. They were valued for their natural intelligence. In the Victorian era, artists who could now mass produce their works began painting for a larger, mainly middle class audience. They no longer cared for their association with nobility. They appreciated the spirit and valor of the dog and enjoyed realistic paintings of dogs in everyday life.
At this time, Sir Edwin Landseer became famous for his heartfelt portraits of dogs. The dogs seem to have an honesty about them. As if they are pure and of good character in a way unlike humans. Landseer specialized in his heroic paintings of Saint Bernards. In this portrait, a black Saint Bernard relaxes by the ocean. The dog in the portrait is an individual and is not idealized. His name is Bob. He was caught in a shipwreck but was able to swim to the British coast. After that he went on to save a total of twenty three people from drowning. Because of this Bob was proclaimed a member of the Royal Humane Society and given a medal and access to food. Saint Bernard dogs with black and white markings are now called “Landseers” because of his frequent portrayal of the breed. Another painting by him, called Saved depicts two Saint Bernards rescuing men trapped after an avalanche. Dogs had been symbols of valor always in the presence of other noble humans, but now dogs are shown with their own traits and their individual valor and accomplishments. Dogs are made the heroes, and are not shunted to the side as a mere companion.
All of this coincided with the passing of the first animal cruelty law and the creation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals in 1924 in Britain.