A Brief History of Dogs in Art

Scroll through the photo roll of any dog owner’s cell phone and you’re sure to find endless pictures of their pup.

And even though it wasn’t always so easy to capture an image of your pet, humans have been doing so in various forms for literally thousands of years. This post is all about dogs in art and how people have been finding excuses to show off their pups since the dawn of civilization.

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Earliest Known Dog in Art

In 2017, archeologist Maria Guagnin was cataloguing over 1400 rock art panels at Shuwaymis and Jubbah, two regions in Saudi Arabia known for their neolithic art. Among these panels, she found 349 different depictions of dogs (check your phone, how many photos do you have of your pup?)

Interestingly enough, the dogs appear to be wearing leashes and helping in various hunting scenes, which suggests that humans had already domesticated dogs by this point in time, 8000-9000 years ago.

Dogs were frequently depicted in ancient Greek and Roman art, too. The most famous of these is the “Cave canem!” mosaic from Pompeii from the 2nd century BC. This translates to “beware of dog!”

Ancient Roman mural of a dog with the words "Cave Canem" in front of it
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dog-related art from this time also included sculpture, pottery, and jewelry, and featured distinct breeds of dogs including sighthounds, mastiff-style dogs, and lap dogs.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Dogs in Artwork in the Middle Ages

Art in the Middle Ages (and onward) often used objects or motifs to represent virtues. Nearly each object and color choice in the painting was supposed to have a special meaning. And no surprise here: dogs in art represented good things.

Dogs have been considered to be loyalty personified for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and dogs in allegorical paintings from this time represented (marital) fidelity. For example, in the The Arnolfini Portrait (Jan van Eyck, 1434) shows a wealthy couple and their dog.

The Arnolfini Portrait showing a couple and their dog
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The dog is an early type of Griffon terrier and was likely a lap dog. Because lap dogs were expensive companion animals, the painting shows off the couple’s social status too. In other words, this is a dog art humblebrag.

Dogs in Renaissance Art

Showing off wealth in portraits continued into Renaissance art, where dogs continued to appear at the side or lap of their owners. This Portrait of a Noblewoman (Lavinia Fontana, 1580) shows a woman clearly showing off her lavish lifestyle, including a cute little lap dog.

Portrait of a Noblewoman showing a woman and her dog
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

But dogs were featured in some more action-filled paintings too. Hunting was very popular (to the point that it drove bears to extinction in England) and dogs played a big part not only in the hunts, but the paintings too.

Dogs and social class also showed up in heraldry, which is the design of coats of arms to represent family legacies. Popular breeds included greyhounds, mastiffs, bloodhounds, and foxhounds.

Family crest showing a dog and a dragon
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dogs in Art in the 1800s

The Kennel Club was established in the UK in 1873, and the American Kennel Club in 1884. These kennel clubs established breed guidelines for different types of dog breeds, and Victorian art reflected this. One example is Maud Earl’s “I Hear a Voice” (1896).

Also during this time period, small sculptures called “netsuke” became a popular art form in Japan, and also were practical (used as toggles on clothing cords).

Japanese Netsuke sculpture of a dog
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Modern Art

As art styles morphed from realistic to impressionist to abstract, dogs were included every step of the way.

Most people will recognize the “Dogs Playing Poker” series (Marcellus Coolidge, 1894), which was actually a series of oil paintings commissioned to help advertise cigars.

Dogs Playing Poker artwork
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Picasso often depicted dogs in his artwork, from the more impressionist “Boy with a Dog” (1905) to a series of more abstract art featuring Lump, the dachshund of an American photojournalist who lived with Picasso for several years.

Boy with a Dog by Picasso
Photo credit: WikiArt
doodle of Lump, Picasso's dog
Photo credit: PabloPicasso.net

Dog Artwork in Your Home

If you’re looking to show off your pup in the form of artwork, you’ve got more options than any of the previous eras combined. Check out this post for a number of customized dog artwork companies that lets you put your pup (or pups, plural!) into paintings, watercolor, and more.

PuppyLists is written by Kat, who has owned, trained, volunteered with, and loved dogs for nearly three decades. When she isn't writing or researching, she's out adventuring with her 15 year old Lab mix.