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What is the history of pet portraits?

August 23, 2016 3 min read

The history of pet portraits is quite interesting, let's take a brief look at the history and development of pet portraits over time.
Pets Throughout Art History

For who knows how long, dogs have been referred to as man’s best friend and so they are the obvious subject matter of many of the greatest artist of all time., For those who have a pet or have ever owned a pet, whatever species or breed they may be, know what it is like to have a constant companion who always greets you, with a wagging tail and cheerful smile. About 10,000 years ago dogs became one of the first domesticated animals and by 3500 B.C. cats became a household pet in Egypt. Undoubtedly the longest lasting trend, that won’t be ending anytime soon; pets have not only become ingrained into our cultural history, but have been immortalized by fine artists. When one first thinks of canine paintings, something similar to the amusingly kitsch paintings of cheap pet portraits might spring to mind, but contrary to this perception some of the most avant-garde and progressive artists such as Picasso have chosen to depict their canine counterparts on canvas.

As we take a look throughout art history there is an overwhelming presence of pets in painting, an early example is the infamous Marriage of Arnolfini Portrait circa 1434 where a fluffy little fella stands in the foreground. Though Fido could definitely be overlooked in this painting, he becomes both a symbol of loyalty and a reflection of wealth and courtly status, as he is merely a companion lap dog versus a working dog. It was during the Middle Ages when dogs and cats began being treated as pets as we know them today, bringing them into the home and allowing them to live amongst the family, however this was limited to the upper classes who had the wealth to actually support extra hungry mouths.

Jan van Eyck, "The Arnolfini Portrait," 1434, oil on panel
Jan van Eyck, “The Arnolfini Portrait,” 1434, oil on panel

It was not until the mid-1800’s, in light of the industrial revolution and new middle classes, that a larger demographic could afford a household pet. At this point owning pets, especially birds, became all the rage. In addition, commissioned portraits accompanied by your dog, cat, or bird also became a popular practice as one can see many examples all throughout the 19th century. 

Alfred de Dreux, "Pug Dog in an Armchair," 1857, oil on canvas
Alfred de Dreux, “Pug Dog in an Armchair,” 1857, oil on canvas

Probably one of the most iconic examples of a pet appearing in an uncommissioned portrait is in Andrew Wyeth’s Master Bedroom, which depicts a little pup curled up on a bed snoozing the day away. It is a portrayal of the everyday dog in an everyday American home, man’s best friend at his very best.

Andrew Wyeth, "Master Bedroom," 1965
Andrew Wyeth, “Master Bedroom,” 1965

Or more contemporary painters like Judy Henn cleverly pays homage to some of the great painters in her whimsical dog portraits such as in this David Hockney inspired piece below.

Judy Henn, "July"
Judy Henn, “July”
David Hockney, "Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)," 1971
David Hockney, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” 1971

It is no surprise that pets can be seen in paintings throughout history, as pet paintings served as a form of the depiction of life before the advent of the automatic camera, and it is also no surprise that pet portraits continue to serve as an artistic rendition of pets, to embody our close and unique emotional connection with pets and signify our humanity, and civilization; we undeniably love them and they love us back, unconditionally.