Q&A with Susie Green, author of Dogs in Art

A new book delves into centuries of art showcasing our first and oldest friends.
By The Bark Editors, May 2020
Edvard Munch Self-portrait in Bergen, 1916 (left); Head of a Dog, 1942 (right) Oil on canvas (Bergen) and wood panel (Dog)

Edvard Munch Self-portrait in Bergen, 1916 (left); Head of a Dog, 1942 (right) Oil on canvas (Bergen) and wood panel (Dog)

Dogs in Art is a refreshing primer on a subject old as time, as evidenced by Egyptian and pre-Columbian artifacts highlighted by author Susie Green in this seminal work. A handsome, well-researched book, it strikes the perfect balance between an academic thesis and a popular art history tour.

In her new book, Susie Green takes the reader on an artistic tour across time, from ancient Rome through the Renaissance and into the 21st century. A thoughtful writer, she shares insights into the many ways dogs have been depicted in art through the ages, and how those depictions have mirrored the evolution of human cultures and societies. A number of exquisite works rarely seen in print are included, as are numerous sly revelations. With this tome, she has achieved that rare feat of personalizing a much-studied field, and deserves our congratulations. Recently, The Bark spoke to Susie Green about the making of Dogs in Art.

Q: Tell us about the origins of your book, and who you wrote it for.

A: I’ve been thinking about a book based on dogs in art and life for many years. Originally, I had a much wider project in mind, something that took in dogs in a much broader cultural sense … everything from dog taxidermy—interestingly, remarkably popular, even today—to the phenomena that is “Dogs of Instagram.” But finally, I decided to focus on dogs in art because humans of almost every culture have painted and sculpted their dogs since the dawn of history, and continue to do so today.

I wrote principally with dog-lovers in mind, and I wanted my book to fascinate those who owned toy dogs just as much as those who kept working hunting dogs. But I also strove to write a scholarly, well-researched work that would interest art historians and sociologists.

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Q: As you researched this book, did you encounter (or re-encounter) any new works, or have any new revelations?

A: It was fascinating to discover how many artists had canine companions, and how these dogs were so often reflections of their owners, or their owners’ desires. Picasso may have painted his many dogs over and over, but often he abandoned them on a whim, just as he did his mistresses. Frida Kahlo’s Xolos [Mexican hairless dogs] were faithful friends in an extremely unfaithful world, one in which her husband had an affair with her sister.

But the portrait that particularly struck me was Edvard Munch’s Dog’s Head (1942). Munch was a very lonely man—so lonely that he listened to radio static to alleviate his isolation—and he sought solace in his many canine companions. One of his favorites was a St. Bernard-type dog called Bamse, who used to accompany him to the cinema. But this is no ordinary portrait ... it is surely a canine version of The Scream. Although it was painted in 1942, it is interesting to compare it to his Self-portrait in Bergen (1916), so similar in aspect, they might almost be one.

I was also entranced to discover Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige II’s woodblock print, Furansu (France) French Woman, Her Child and Pet Dog (1860). It is such a truly Japanese take on European life, and one in which the artist has given us not a down-to-earth Labrador, but one with flashing green eyes, sparkling teeth and a vivid red tongue who is surely a super-hound from the realms of Japanese mythology.

El Jacopo dal Ponte, known as Jacopo Bassano.
Two Hunting Dogs Tied to a Tree Stump, 1548
Oil on canvas

Q: Do you have a particular favorite (or favorites) amongst the works shown in the book?

A: So many possibilities! I particularly like Alfred Jacob Miller’s Snake Indian and His Dog (ca. 1858–1860), because not only does it show us an intimate and utterly natural relationship between a man and his dog, but also, reminds us of our relationship to a broader nature—one that we are in danger of losing.

For sheer artistry, I must choose Jacopo Bassano’s Two Hunting Dogs Tied to a Tree Stump (ca. 1548–1550), the first painted animal portrait in Western art. And what a spectacular first! The dogs are so beautifully realized that I can just imagine putting out my hand to feel the warmth of a silky-soft ear.

Alfred Jacob Miller
Snake Indian and His Dog, ca. 1858–1860
Watercolor on paper
Utagawa Hiroshige II
Furansu (France)
French Woman, Her Child and Pet Dog, 1860
Woodblock print

Q: What do you think it means that dogs appear in so many of human history’s cultural artifacts?

A: Dogs have been with us from the start. Without them, life would have been immeasurably harder. Imagine hunting with no dogs to track and bring down your prey at a time when a successful hunt meant the difference between life and death. In the urban environments in which so many of us live, we forget that many dogs were large, weighing in at a hefty 150 pounds, or even more, and so could pull heavy loads and transport large animals back to camp. As human culture became increasingly agrarian, dogs showed their prowess in other ways: herding sheep and cattle and defending flocks from wolves. They were watchers, guards and babysitters; even their fur could be used for weaving. Our lives were bound up with those of dogs in ways that can be hard to imagine, living as we do in our modern and increasingly technological society.

In urban conglomerations, we may have lost our physical dependency on dogs, but the emotional bond that developed over many thousands of years of symbiotic existence still exists today. There may even be a genetic disposition toward it. To bond with a dog, or use a pack of dogs, was a matter of self-survival.

No wonder, then, that the image of this multifaceted and extraordinarily talented creature has been represented in every media available, and in the 21st century may garner thousands—even millions—of followers on Instagram!

Kändler
Meissen Pug, 18th century
Ceramic

Q: Were there works you weren’t able to include in the book, but wished to?

A: So many, but both space and budget were finite. I would love to have included at least two Vogue covers, and much more photography—works by Cecil Beaton and Avedon in particular—but the use fees were too high. And sadly, I was unable to squeeze in a delicious 18th-century Meissen Pug by Kändler, Meissen’s master modeler, that is both adorable and amusing. At first glance, it appears that the lady has everything she could wish for: a page, a Pug and an admirer. However, a closer look reveals that the gentleman, although kissing her hand, only has eyes for the Pug, and the Pug, in turn, gazes at him adoringly.

Edouard Manet
Tama [Jewel], ca. 1875
Oil on canvas

I would also like to have included Edouard Manet’s Tama [Jewel] (ca. 1875), a Japanese Chin, a living souvenir at a time when all things Japanese were the height of fashion.

But all these wonderful works, like so many others, will have to wait until I can produce another volume!

Dogs in Art (Reaktion Books)
288 pages, 140 color plates