Dogs: History, Myth, Art

Harvard University Press, 208 pp., 2008; $35
By Catherine Johns
Reviewed by Sacha Zimmerman Scoblic, May 2009, Updated March 2021

When dog lovers stroll through the halls of any major museum, it’s easy to guess where their eyes will land: the foxes in a Japanese woodblock print, the magisterial canine face of the Egyptian god Anubis, the Terrier at the foot of a beggar in a European watercolor. Imagine, then, an exhibit that—instead of lingering on the vibrant colors of the Renaissance, the ancient textiles of Babylonia, or the shadows and light in a Hopper—is assembled just for the dog enthusiast with a sense of aesthetics.

In her new book, Dogs: History,Myth, Art, Catherine Johns has done just that. A retired curator of the Romano-British collections at the British Museum, Johns time-travels, picking up a Victorian brooch here, a Peruvian ceramic vessel there—each object d’art emblazoned with a dog, a wolf, a jackal. And the collection is astonishing. Hounds endlessly pursuing hares around the circumference of a pottery jar, a precise charcoal Saluki dipping her paw into a puddle— Johns’ book is alive not just with images of dogs, but also with their spirits.

Johns takes the reader on a journey behind the cute facade to the allegorical, the symbolic and even the pragmatic. Against the richness of the book’s images, one might expect to find florid language, but Johns’ tone is that of the matter-offact museum docent: “Our first reaction to the 1831 print reproduced here, of two ‘Alpine mastiffs reanimating a Traveller,’ is to roll our eyes. But this is an interesting picture.” Using each two-page spread to contrast two works, Johns’ purpose is art history, not sentimentality. Indeed, the art lover will find the book a worthy read on its own terms and not just as a vehicle to showcase dogs.

“The dog star Sirius, in the constellation of Canis Major (the greater dog), is the brightest star in the night sky.” Is this why the dog had such import to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, who each created representations of the heavenly dog on everything from coins to flatware? Perhaps. It seems that, even in relative modernity, the dog star acts as the muse of artists, leading Robert Frost, in the poem Canis Major, to call Sirius “the great Overdog, that romps through the night.” It is fitting that an Overdog soars through the evening skies; after all, in the nether world, Hades is guarded by a three-headed dog. Whether as guards or protectors, dogs are our source of comfort during times of existential quandary. Johns captures this poignancy again and again, through centuries of great art.

With a layout as elegant as the subject matter (presented in an attractive compact format), this book could easily be slipped in among your other coffee table tomes—something to casually peek at from time to time. And while Johns’ clipped timbre may not inspire you to curl up with your dog and get lost in the prose, there is fascinating information here for the discerning amant de chien. Like the voices we often hear wafting through the museum, Johns’ book is the hushed narrative of the tour guide pointing out the best details—such as how, in ancient Mesopotamia, dogs were thought to act as children’s guides to the afterlife because they were ferocious enough to protect but playful enough to delight; how the jackals carved on Egyptian jewelry were said to protect the wearer; how dogs are often depicted sleeping because that is when they are finally still. Of course, it’s more enjoyable to listen to that knowing guide when your eyes don’t have to do the work of reading but can simply soak up the heraldry of the Pointer, the innocence of the Pug, the leonine quality of the Pekingese; barring that, however, Johns provides an excellent alternative.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 54: May/Jun 2009

Sacha Zimmerman Scoblic is a Washington, D.C.-based writer/editor.