By Tamsin Pickeral
Five thousand years seems like an eternally long period of time, and it certainly is when you have a publisher breathing fire down your neck and muttering about word numbers and lack of space, but actually viewed within the context of our history, 5,000 years is relatively short. It becomes even shorter when looking at archaeological evidence of domestic dog and the earliest discovered human/canine relationships, which date back to around 14,000 years ago to a site at Bonn-Oberkassel in Germany. This leaves a considerable margin of time between evidence of human/canine co-habitation, and evidence of the first images made of the dog, which date to around 5,000 years ago. Further, despite this evidence, the actual extent of the human/canine relationship is one that doubtlessly stretches back very much further than this date.
When I began the research for a book on the dog in art I found this discrepancy fascinating, particularly in view of the work I had done on a previous book, The Horse: 30,000 Years of the Horse in Art. The horse, it seems, inspired early human to crawl deep into caves and paint magnificent images of their likeness, yet the humble dog, companion, protector and hunting ally, remained largely ignored by the artist for thousands of years. The reasons for the lack of pre-historic images of the dog have disappeared through the course of time, leaving the gates of conjecture firmly open. Stepping through these, to me a fundamental cause of this difference was based on the very reason why we love our dogs so much today, their nature. The dog aligned itself with human very early in our history and quickly became the creature that we adore, one of readily given affection, forgiveness and loyalty. They attached themselves to the pre-historic fireside, and with inherent cunning allowed themselves to be domesticated, trading their loyalty and protective spirit for human food scraps, protection and shelter. In this way the dog became a part of the fabric of everyday life, and in this sense was an entirely unremarkable addition to the extended pre-historic family. The horse on the other hand, which was not domesticated until around 6,000 years ago, remained a magical creature to early human. It was untamed, ethereal and also, a valuable source of food, factors that made it a creature of considerable importance, which could provide argument for the proliferation of pre-historic horse images.
It was with some hesitation then that the dog, our most beloved companion, first started to appear in the arts, but after an initially slow start, the dog became one of the most frequently painted animals. They appeared at first as subsidiary to the primary subject of art works, slinking into the canvas to hover up crumbs from beneath laden tables, licking clean the feet of religious figures or accompanying bold warriors on hunting expeditions. Very small ‘pet’ dogs appeared in ancient Roman and Greek works, alongside and in contrast to the sleek ‘sight’ hounds of greyhound or saluki appearance, and to the heavy framed Molossian guard dogs and hunting dogs, the precursors to breeds such as the St Bernard, Alpine Mastiff, Bernese Mountain Dog and Rottweiler. From the very first recorded images of the dog in art, the spitz-like dogs in rock paintings in the Tassili N’Ajjer, Sahara Desert, one thing has become strikingly clear, and that is the enormous proliferation of different breeds of dog.
Dogs were frequently included in paintings to convey a symbolic message, most often being representative of qualities such as fidelity, love and servitude. Though conversely the dog can also be associated with deviancy and carnal desire. In particular black dogs have traditionally been associated with Hell and ambivalent supernatural entities in the arts, and black dogs in general appear relatively infrequently in art.
Dogs first began to be treated as a subject matter in their own right during the sixteenth century, and from this time onwards there was a steady and increasing treatment of the dog as an artistic subject, culminating in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century. ‘Pure-bred’ dogs of different breeds had become prestigious and popular, with owners wishing to immortalise their pets in paint leading to a recognisable type of painting, the ‘pure-bred’ portrait. These works were designed to show off the breed’s particular qualities, and most often depict the dog standing in profile, in a stance not dissimilar to that required when showing dogs. It was during the same era that the ‘pet’ portrait also became popular. These works were intended to portray a beloved pet, regardless of breed, and were often heavily anthropomorphised. The twentieth and twenty-first century ushered in yet another interpretation of the dog, with images alluding to deeper psychological content and expressive of spiritual concepts.
The research for the book, which is barely outlined here, was extensive and amongst the most fascinating I have undertaken to date. Although I have always been an ardent dog lover, I had never really considered the importance of the human/canine relationship before in terms of its great depth and intricacies. To me as an art historian, much of the history and depth of this relationship is immortalised through the hand of the artist, providing an absorbing visual display of thousands of years of companionship. I could continue to wax lyrical, but have been warned again about ‘too many words’, so will sign off with a toast to our most beloved friends and the best hot water bottles around.