Classical Pets in Art

Briton_Rivière_-_Requiescat_-_Google_Art_Project

Feature image: Briton Rivière, Requiescat, Google Art Project via Wikimedia

Classical Pets in Art History

Painting dogs has been historically associated with loyalty and companionship. Certain breeds of dogs take center stage when painted. Today, they add a new depth and emotion to paintings, especially in the United States. Because dogs have become such loyal companions to us, we start to see ourselves in the painting, emphasizing a layer of vulnerability in each paint stroke. Contemporary artists continue to explore this relationship between humans and animals, with some even turning back to the elegant, posh portraits of past pets.

Michele Pace, Portrait of a blue greyhound belonging to the Chigi family, standing in a coastal, mountainous landscape via Mutual Art
Michele Pace, Portrait of a blue greyhound belonging to the Chigi family, standing in a coastal, mountainous landscape via Mutual Art

Pet portraits today are more accessible than ever before. While immortalizing their memory in pictures is easier than ever, painting is also. We no longer use pictures of pets as a sign of stature and wealth but as a way to highlight the pet’s personality for all to see. The narratives around these pet portraits have shifted from viewing pets as a financial asset or a display of affluence to representing companionship in one of its truest forms.

Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Trois chiens devant une antilope, (Three Dogs before an Antelope), Ireland, Russborough House. © Alfred Beit Foundation via La Gazette Drouot
Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Trois chiens devant une antilope, (Three Dogs before an Antelope), Ireland, Russborough House. © Alfred Beit Foundation via La Gazette Drouot

Early paintings of Beloved Pets

Early paintings of pets are from cave paintings, the walls of which were adorned with depictions of domesticated wolves fighting alongside humans tens of thousands of years ago.


As monarchies expanded across the world, pets became associated with stature. The royal family often posed with their pets or even commissioned artists to paint their solo pictures. For example, Catherine of Aragon had her portrait painted with her pet monkey in the early 1500s. This was a prime example of using pets in a portrait to display esteem and wealth, as exotic animals were seen as a symbol of opulence.

Queen Elizabeth with her two corgis, 1962 via Pinterest
Queen Elizabeth with her two corgis, 1962 via Pinterest

However, the common pet amongst most royal families was dogs for their loyalty and their appearance. Royal families also loved that dogs could be bred based on purpose, hair color, and size. This is where we get certain breeds like the Pembroke Welsh, the Norfolk Terrier, and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. King Charles Spaniels were specifically bred to lay on the laps of royal figures in drafty castles to keep figures warm and comfortable. Their proximity and loyalty to the royal families meant they appeared in portraits alongside the family as well, often as children. If anything is similar between royal families and the general public, it's that our pets follow us wherever we go.

Prominent Examples Throughout History

King Charles Spaniel by Edouard Manet depicts a small King Charles Spaniel sitting in a chair. It is one of Manet's later works and holds the smooth, loose brushwork indicative of his style. The dog's position indicates it likely sat up after laying down, presumably from a nap. Keeping the background minimalistic ensures the audience's attention remains on the sleepy pup. The dog's eyes are not focused on him as he paints; however, they focus on something off in the distance. This dog should be thankful that the impressionist painters worked quickly. I like to think the dog was bribed with treats to stay sitting up and staying still. 

Edouard Manet, King Charles Spaniel via National Gallery of Art
Edouard Manet, King Charles Spaniel via National Gallery of Art

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair by Mary Cassatt depicts a girl and her dog in a blue armchair next to each other. They are both relaxed, the girl deep in thought and her dog deep in sleep. The girl is slumped in the chair with pulled-back hair and ruffled unkempt clothes. The girl looks towards the dog, seeing a friend and a partner in crime. Even if the dog is sleeping, it is comforted by her presence. 

Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair via Wikipedia
Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair via Wikipedia

Sometimes, dogs are used to add elements of satire into paintings. A Jack in Office – Sir Edwin Landseer features a Jack Russel terrier on the top of an office table. It eats all the food; other dogs stare at it, begging for food with visible ribcages. A “jack” is a slang term in Britain for pompous, selfish government officials. Per V&A, a critic described the table terrier as “the well-fed and much-caressed dog…keeps others from testing the food of which he has had too much.”

Sir Edwin Landseer, A Jack in Office via Mutual Art
Sir Edwin Landseer, A Jack in Office via Mutual Art

Artist-Focus - Alison Friend

Alison Friend is an artist based in London, England. She has illustrated over 20 published children's books and now turns to creating a more personalized spin on the art of the pet portrait.“We think of them as having human emotions, and I try to capture that,” Friend said on her website.

Her love for the creative process has existed her entire life as she always drew and painted. Her father was a painter, and she would watch him work while exploring her own creative ideas. Her family nurtured that creativity, and when she received her first set of paints, she was very protective of them.

His Granny Knitted It! via Alisonfriend.com
His Granny Knitted It! via Alisonfriend.com
Roy and Rita via Alisonfriend.com
Roy and Rita via Alisonfriend.com

Her paintings connect generations across the world as they come together to connect with her work. Users congregate on her social media platforms to talk about how they relate to her paintings and how they can see their own dog’s personalities shine through her portraits. These experiences shared by people across the internet make a heartwarming, wholesome corner of the internet, her art at the center.

“Mostly, it’s to tell me how much joy my work brings to them, and it’s so lovely to hear, and I feel very grateful to get such love for what I do.” Friend said.

Choose Biscuits #2 via Alisonfriend.com
Choose Biscuits #2 via Alisonfriend.com

While historical pet portrait painters started with a reference, Friend’s process begins with words. Developing titles and detailed descriptions with rough sketches allows the imagination to flourish. Most of her subjects start as a product of her imagination.

Whether a dog’s portrait is from the 1500s or the 2000s, their ability to bring a smile to our faces transcends time. So next time you see a painting of a dog cross your path, whether in a gallery or on a screen, step back and consider its history and purpose, even for a moment. Let yourself connect with these beloved pets, whose loyalty and companionship were strong enough to be immortalized on a canvas.


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