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Renaissance Art
An artist’s best friend—the dog in Renaissance painting
Fig. 1: Piero di Cosimo, A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, c. 1462

Dogs are a common visual motif in Western art and have been called the “artist’s best friend” for their role as companion and life model. The close and accurate observation of animals is a hallmark of Renaissance (and Baroque) art in general, and as the most domesticated and favored of species, it is inevitable that dogs in particular would be well represented. Sketching from life was part of the Renaissance artist’s normal routine, and when artists began to look at the world around them, there was the dog—a ready and willing source of inspiration.

Throughout the Renaissance, dogs abound in art, most often appearing as incidental background motifs, part of a hunting scene, religious, mythological, or allegorical composition, or beside their masters in portraits. However, even a brief accounting of their role in the visual arts of the period involves issues that go well beyond the history of art, including court life, aristocratic tastes and fashion, pet ownership, the status of hunting among the royal and noble classes, developments in the classification of dog breeds and types, and changing views of the intelligence and mental abilities of dogs. For example, although working dogs were ubiquitous in the Renaissance—they turned cooking spits, pulled carts, herded sheep, baited wild animals, and competed in sporting events—their menial status mostly precluded their appearing as such in paintings of the period.   

The first great observer of animals in the Renaissance, Pisanello, produced several sensitively observed studies of dogs, evidently drawn from nature, in a sketchbook in Paris. He used these studies for the Greyhounds, hound, and two small Spaniel-like dogs in the foreground of The Vision of Saint Eustace (fig. 2). Half a century later, Albrecht Dürer rendered dogs with the attention of a portraitist, in silverpoint and ink and wash, leaving us several preparatory drawings of individual animals taken directly from life that exemplify the Renaissance artist’s intensifying quest for accuracy and realism. The tense, nervous hunting dogs in the foreground of his largest engraving, The Vision of Saint Eustace, were realized so persuasively that they served as an important source for subsequent artists who reused them for their own compositions.

Not all depictions of dogs in the Renaissance were lifelike or the result of firsthand observation, however, because many artists viewed animals as merely a vehicle for conveying a bewildering variety of complex and often contradictory symbols. Just as often as dogs were shown in Italian paintings as the companion of the young Tobias, protecting the youth as he wandered far and wide in search of the fish that would cure the blindness of his father, Tobit, they also carried the ancient burden of pariah, or scavenger, dogs, associated in the Old Testament with evil and unclean things, and in the New Testament with Christ’s persecutors. The dog was the faithful attribute of Saints Dominic, Margaret of Cortona, and Roch, as well as of the hunters Diana, Adonis and Cephalus, but it was also a symbol of sexuality and promiscuity. Yet church fathers, scholars, poets, and humanists were symbolized and accompanied by dogs. In Dürer’s engraving of Saint Jerome in His Study (1514; Bartsch 60), the saint works on his letters or translations, while his dog sleeps quietly nearby, a vivid symbol of the contemplative life.

As early as the second half of the 15th century, dogs began to take on an independent existence in art. Their status as objects of favor and prestige among the European ruling families and their owners’ desire for conspicuous display, particularly among the Italian ducal families in Mantua, Ferrara and Florence, resulted in a demand for portraits of individual dogs. In an undated account sent to Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, by Zanetto Bugato, one of the items to be paid for was “a portrait of the dog called Bareta.” Francesco Bonsignori is said to have painted for Francesco Gonzaga, 4th Marquis of Mantua, a dog whose likeness was so convincing that one of his own dogs was said to have attacked the painting.

Although dog portraiture per se did not become a widespread practice until the early 18th century, it is clear that Renaissance patrons did not consider their dogs as frivolous or inconsequential elements of their own portraits. Dogs, even today, are natural adjuncts of portraits, appearing as fashion accessories or indications of a sitter’s tastes and interests. Even in the early Renaissance they appear to have been painted from life—surely the little Griffon terrier in Jan van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife (fig. 4) is a family pet and stares boldly at the beholder, irrespective of his role as a traditional attribute of marital fidelity.

A notable example of a vivid and lifelike dog appearing alongside its owner in Italian painting is the pair of elegant Greyhounds accompanying Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta Kneeling before Saint Sigismondo in Piero della Francesca’s fresco in the Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini. Although bred principally for hunting, Greyhounds were often kept as court pets in great luxury; this pair was a gift from Pier Francesco di Lorenzo de’ Medici. The white Greyhound, lying with outstretched paws, waiting patiently on its master, is especially well rendered. Although these noble dogs have been widely interpreted as symbolic of some virtue like fidelity, they are equally convincing examples of the high value placed upon hunting dogs in the Renaissance and were probably more greatly appreciated by contemporary observers for Piero’s detailed naturalism. Fifteenth-century letters survive in which Italian princes express interest in obtaining fine hunting dogs or giving them as presents. Such dogs often wore costly collars—the dog collars of the Ferrarese court were made by the court goldsmith—and the 1468 inventory of Sigismondo’s possessions shows that he owned a number of elaborate dog collars studded with silver.

The affection that Ludovico II Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, had for his dog, Rubino, is confirmed not only through his letters and, following the animal’s death, the erection of a tombstone complete with a sentimental Latin epitaph, but also by the inclusion of the creature itself—a russet-coated Bloodhound-like dog—beneath his chair in Andrea Mantegna’s celebrated fresco depicting Ludovico, his family, and court (1465–1474; Camera degli Sposi, Palazzo Ducale, Mantua). The adjacent fresco, which depicts two huge Mastiffs and other hunting dogs, further attests to the passion for dogs at the Gonzaga court. Another notable representation of a dog in monumental wall painting in the Renaissance is the feathered Saluki with a studded collar in the foreground of Pinturicchio’s Departure of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini for Basel (c. 1503–1507; Cathedral Library, Siena). In this fresco, the animal appears almost as conspicuous as the figure of the future Pope Pius II.

In the 16th century, dogs adorned portraits in a variety of ways intended to reflect the character, strength, and nobility of their owners. Lucas Cranach’s imposing pair of full-length portraits of Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony, and his wife, Catherine of Mecklenburg (1514; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), illustrates the distinctions often made between dogs in royal portraiture: lapdogs represented as exclusively female companions, large hounds depicted as attributes of male virility. The size and prominence of the dog in Antonio Mor’s Cardinal Granvelle’s Dwarf and Dog (c. 1550; Musée du Louvre, Paris)—depicted with such vividness that he can only have been a living dog—suggests that the portrait of the animal interested the patron as much as that of the ornately dressed court dwarf. Increasingly during the 16th-century, dogs appear in portraits not as symbols, or objects of status or ownership, but merely because their masters considered them beloved companions. The Bolognese painter Bartolomeo Passarotti, who included dogs frequently in his late works, summarized explicitly the era’s tender feelings toward dogs in Portrait of a Man with a Dog (c. 1585; Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome), remarkable for the obvious display of affection between the pair.

Italian painters of the 16th century produced a succession of memorable canines that suggests how familiar and admired dogs had become during this period. For Kenneth Clark, the wordless sorrow of Piero di Cosimo’s grieving dog in A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (fig. 1), “the best-loved dog of the Renaissance,’’ marked the beginning of a long tradition in Western art of investing animals with human characteristics. Other notable depictions of dogs include the beautifully painted hounds in Parmigianino’s frescoes of Diana and Actaeon (c. 1523–1524; Camerino, Rocca Sanvitale, Fontanellato); Jacopo da Pontormo’s dog, drawn from life with its back arched, stretching itself in the lunette fresco depicting Vertumnus and Pomona (1520–1521; Gran Salone, Villa Medici, Poggio a Caiano); Dosso Dossi’s white dog in the foreground of Circe and Her Lovers in a Landscape (c. 1511–1512; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); and Federico Barocci’s brown-and-white puppy appealing to the spectator at the extreme lower right of the Madonna del Popolo (1575–1579; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).

It is in the work of the Venetian painters Carpaccio, Titian, Bassano, and Veronese, however, that canine imagery flourished in a sustained fashion. One of the first Renaissance painters to employ scenes of everyday life in his work, Vittore Carpaccio gave particular prominence to dogs in two vastly different contexts: as a symbol of carnality or animal appetite at the feet of a seated courtesan (c. 1495; Museo Correr, Venice), and as a symbol of the attributes of a scholar in the form of a fluffy white Bichon in Saint Augustine’s study (c. 1502; Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice).

With his preference for naturalistic form, Titian played an especially significant role in the promotion of the dog in the visual arts. In the portrait Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, the gesture of the white Maltese-type dog pawing his master is especially appropriate, as the duke’s love for his dogs was well known; in the spring of 1525 he owned no fewer than 111 dogs. The keenly observed dogs in Titian’s portraits appear as solid and real, as convincing and touching, as the human sitters—for example, Charles V Standing with His Dog (1533; Museo del Prado, Madrid); Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere, Duchess of Urbino (c. 1537, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence); Captain with a Cupid and a Dog (c. 1550–1552, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie, Kassel); and Clarice Strozzi (1562; Staatliche Museen, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), in which the lifelike depiction of the small red-and-white Spaniel was singled out by Pietro Aretino in a letter to the artist.

The toy dogs employed in Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) and in his paintings devoted to the theme of Venus with an organist or lute player (c. 1548–1549; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), as well as in his second version of Danaë (1553–1554; Museo del Prado, Madrid), have been interpreted as symbols of female seductiveness. His hunting scenes with Venus and Adonis (1553–1554; Museo del Prado, Madrid) naturally feature realistic portrayals of dogs, and they appear conspicuously in the foreground of the late Flaying of Marsyas (c. 1575; Archiepiscopal Palace, Kremsier). If Titian ever produced a painting with a dog as its principal subject, it has not survived; the near-exception is the engimatic Boy with Dogs, which has been recently interpreted as an allegory of the complementary operations of nature and art: The contrast between the nursing mother’s relationship to her pups and the boy’s to his adult dog expresses the idea that nature brings forth, while art (or culture) trains and nurtures.

Jacopo Bassano seems to have been naturally drawn to animals as his subjects, and he depicted a variety of dogs of different breeds in his historical, religious, and genre subjects over a period of 40 years, beginning with the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1539; Burghley, Stamford, Lincolnshire), which includes a small Spaniel at the Virgin’s feet. He lent a naturalistic note to his compositions with motifs such as the dogs that sniff at the sores on Lazarus’s legs in the foreground of Lazarus and the Rich Man (c. 1554; Cleveland Museum of Art) and lick the blood of the wounded man in The Good Samaritan (fig. 3). Around the middle of the 16th century, Bassano produced a painting of two hunting dogs that survives to mark the beginning of a tradition of commissioned “portraits,” or at least likenesses, of actual dogs that reflects a new interest in and psychological understanding of animals. This unusual work was commissioned in 1548 by Antonio Zentani, a patrician Venetian art collector who apparently wanted a painting of only these two dogs, suggesting to some that these animals were prized hunters from his own kennel and that their depiction was not expected to convey any symbolic or hidden meaning.

Noting Bassano’s dedication to capturing the natural look of dogs, the art historian Roger Rearick emphasized his extraordinary excerption of “two perfectly straightforward canines from their familiar context” and the dedication of a painting to them and them alone. More recently, however, it has been suggested, on the basis of the patron’s spiritual inclinations, that the dogs tethered to a stump, in fact, convey “a severe, almost cheerless message” and represent a complex allegory of the combat between earthly and spiritual life. Irrespective of the symbolic connotations or moralizing intentions of Bassano’s composition, the animals are beautifully realized and remarkable for their truthful representation. The pose of the dog on the left appears to have caught the attention of Tintoretto, who inserted it nearly exactly into his painting Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet for the church of San Marcuola, Venice (c. 1548–49; Museo del Prado, Madrid). By the beginning of the 17th century, Two Hunting Dogs was thought to be a work by Veronese and thereafter it passed as a painting by Titian through a number of celebrated collections, including those of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga, William Beckford, and the Duke of Bedford; it was not until the middle of the 20th century that its proper authorship was restored. The naturalistic tenor of Bassano’s art was given further expression in a similar painting of two dogs by themselves that he made shortly thereafter, Two Hunting Dogs (c. 1555; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), and, two decades later, in A Greyhound (c. 1571; private collection, Turin).

Paolo Veronese, who has been called the “greatest dog-lover in Italian art,” included dozens of dogs, from Greyhounds to Spaniels, in his religious scenes, mythological and allegorical works, and portraits. Dogs abound in particular in his large paintings of biblical feasts executed for the refectories of monasteries in Venice and Verona. The Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee (c. 1560; Galleria Sabauda, Turin), painted for the refectory of Saints Nazaro and Celso in Verona, Veronese’s earliest extant supper scene, contains two dogs under the table that have elicited the admiration of observers from Giorgio Vasari (“so beautiful that they appear real and alive”) to John Ruskin (“The essence of dog is there, the entire, magnificent, generic animal type, muscular and living”). In two versions of the Supper at Emmaus (c. 1560; Musée du Louvre, Paris, and Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden), he seems to have taken special pleasure in showing children and dogs playing together. And in the vast Marriage at Cana for the refectory of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, the most ambitious of Veronese’s banquet scenes, a pair of magnificent white hounds immediately draws the spectator’s attention to the center of the composition.

In the interior of the Villa Barbaro at Maser, where Veronese executed a rich and iconographically complex decorative fresco program about 1561, one of the rooms is traditionally called the Stanza del Cane, after a beautifully rendered little dog occupying a ledge high above the visitor. Veronese’s dogs are painted with such loving attention that they must reflect his own feeling toward animals—a feeling that perhaps is mirrored in the motif of Diana nuzzling one of her Greyhounds in the clouds of the Sala di Olimpo. The abundance and variety of dogs in Veronese’s art make it difficult to attribute specific symbolism to them—they are too numerous and appear in too many diverse settings. Veronese is said to have produced formal “portraits” of individual dogs, including his own, but his only extant painting in which dogs vie with the human figure for prominence is Cupid with Two Dogs (c. 1580–83; Alte Pinakothek, Munich). This painting shows a winged Cupid wearing a golden quiver and holding two black-and-white hunting dogs on a chain, a composition that has been interpreted variously as an allegory of the contrariness of love, faithfulness in love, and the restraint of the animal appetite for love.

This essay is adapted from "An Artist's Best Friend: The Dog in Renaissance and Baroque Painting and Sculpture," by Edgar Peters Bowron in Best in Show: The Dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today (Yale University Press in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Bruce Museum of Art and Science); used with permission. 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 36: May/Jun 2006
Edgar Peters Bowron is Audrey Jones Beck Curator of European Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Fig. 1: Piero di Cosimo, A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, c. 1462, The National Gallery, London
Fig. 2: Pisanello, The Vision of Saint Eustace, c. 1455, The National Gallery, London
Fig. 3: Jacopo Bassano, The Good Samaritan, c. 1557, The National Gallery, London
Fig. 4: Jan van Eyck Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, 1434, The National Gallery, London

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