The art historical record is well-populated by our canine companions: they are pictured as witnesses to our tragedies, our conquests and our quiet moments. The attendance of dogs also play crucial roles in narrating the identities of the human subjects in an artwork. For example, a hunting dog crouched beside a posed rifleman in a forest evokes the potential success of his pursuit; a puppy gently tugging on a girl’s skirt furthers the innocence of her childhood – think of how this image emerges in popular culture, like in the Coopertone baby who’s swimwear is being pulled on by a spaniel. This article, released on Valentine’s Day 2021, will look at three ways that the idea of “fidelity” is heightened by the presence of a dog.
How it Began, How it’s Going: An Important Note about Cultural Diversity
Dogs were well established as domesticated companions on every continent occupied by humans by the end of the last ice age – around 15,000 years ago (Hobgood-Oster, page 9), which means dogs developed in a broad range of cultures and societies — a concept that’s come to be known as the “multiple origin theory.” This wide geographical distribution results in a rich diversity in how domestication is practiced and expressed. Just as cultures innovated novel ways to feed, clothe and shelter themselves – based on the resources at hand – they also evolved distinct approaches to domestication.
For example, the western European narrative suggests that the food scraps left behind by humans soothed relations between wolves and humans, but it likewise also suggests that the encounters between wolves and humans were often hostile and competitive (Pierotti and Fogg, page 12) – a tense dynamic that survives today with the culling of wolves to protect livestock, and also our fear of the wild canine species that prowl landscapes where our urban areas and theirs intersect.
|(Wolf and Fox Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1616. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of themetmuseum.org)|
In North America, the narrative provided by different Indigenous nations focuses more on cooperation than competition. In The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, authors Raymond Pierotti and Brandy R. Goff recount how “humans, new to an area, survived at first by scavenging from kills from wolves” and that “… Indigenous peoples repaid their debt over millennia, leaving parts of kills for the wolves, ravens, and magpies who acted as guides and mentors…” (Pierotti and Fogg, page 6).
The conversation about the culturally-distinct materializations of relations between wolves, dogs and humans is complex and important, and it will be teased out throughout this blog series. For this article and moving forward, let’s note that there are significant variations in how humans live with dogs based on cultural context, and that examples of a theme should not be taken as universal, but embedded in the distinctive conditions of time, space, resources, traditions, social and political opportunities (or lack thereof) and the variations of individuals.
Despite there being a substantial range in how we interact with dogs and wolves, it is clear by the prevalent phenomena of our coevolution that we are compatible animals. According to Laura Hobgood-Oster in A Dog’s History of the World: Canine and the Domestication of Humans, “[the] overlapping ecological niches, similar diets, and comparable social hierarchies of humans and canines made this pairing a natural fit” (Hobgood-Oster, Page 14). In our compatibility, the conceptual barriers between our two species are easily blurred.
Contemporaneously, we often wonder to whose will are we bending: online quizzes answer which breed characteristics best reflect our lifestyle, a popular bumper sticker asks the question “who rescued who?” and it has become increasingly fashionable to create social media profiles under the identity of your dog – check out this list of top dogs on Instagram, 9 out of 10 have more than a million followers! These examples are 21st-Century trends; however, they are part of a longstanding tradition in which representations of dogs are actually thinly-veiled symbols of human behaviour, emotion, values and virtues. As an art historian, I value the exercise of connecting familiar tropes to their histories to better understand their meaning in my contemporary experience. Let’s go!
|(Screenshot of Mediakix article "Are You Following the 10 Most Famous Dogs of Instagram?," taken Feb 14, 2021.)|
Fidelity of Family
Plaque with a Royal Family, India (West Bengal, Chandraketugarh), Shunga Period, 1st century BC. Courtesy of met museum.org
This 1st century BC terracotta plaque of an Indian royal family found at Chandraketugarh, an archeological site in West Bengal, portrays a family in casual repose: the father sits and leans, almost as if against the left edge of the frame itself, and his outstretched arm leads our eye towards his wife. Her hand rests fondly on his thigh thus returning our eye to her husband. The right angles of the two parallels created by their arms and their torsos nearly ensnare our gaze in the rectangular track of their affection, but the elegant drape of their sashes guides us down towards the two ducks and the child holding a dog by a chain with the unsubstantial grip of a toddler. These figures in the foreground are tranquil: the ducks aren’t flying away, in fact one of them seems to be preening its feathers; the dog is stretching as if preparing to lay down into an even more relaxed pose, or perhaps is straightening out after a nap; and the child looks to the dog with wide eyes and a soft smile – he appears to be content with his animal company. The fidelity – here that is the commitment to familial peace – demonstrated in this plaque is a timeless illustration of an ideal nuclear family, and the appearance of a calm dog in this kind of image is far from unique.
Fidelity as Verisimilitude
|Mother and Child, Kitagawa Utamaro, ca. 1800. Woodblock Print. Courtesy of themetmuseum.org|
The term “fidelity” not only refers to the demonstration of faithfulness to a person, idea or cause as it was presented in the Indian plaque of the family, but the word also refers to the quality and exactness to which something can be reproduced or duplicated. There are many instances in the art historical record in which dogs are reproduced in the image of ourselves or to replicate themes of human experience. The woodblock print Mother and Child (circa 1800) by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro simultaneously performs these two definitions of “Fidelity.” A trifecta of mother, child and dog are turned away from the viewer, but we see the faces of the mother and the child on her back replicated in a still pool of water that has gathered in either the hollow of a tree or, based on the perfection of the circle, a bowl carved into a stone. The image is playful, as if these three had stumbled upon this looking glass while out on an afternoon walk. The mother leans forward into the reflective frame, and the child’s left hand is raised as if waving at their mirrored selves. To the left of the mother and child, a dog sits on its haunches with its right paw raised in the air possibly imitating the child’s gesture (metmuseum.org). The presence of the dog bolsters the fidelity of this family moment, but while the mother and child are treated to a wistful glimpse of themselves in the calm pool, the dog is not similarly indulged, rather the dog imitates the child as if it desires to be a part of this family portrait.
|Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717-1794) and Ernestine Aloisia Ungnad von Weissenwolff (1732-1794), Martin van Meytens the Younger, ca. 1760s. Oil on Canvas. Courtesy of metmuseum.org.|
This final illustration reveals how two different breeds of dogs reflect patriarchy in 18th century Italy. In this portrait by Martin van Meytens the Younger, an Italian couple dressed in their finery recline in a wooded area. Their complexion is the lightest point of contrast between themselves and the dark and desaturated swallow of forest behind them. The man, Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717-1794), sits on a boulder in the painting’s left field. The long and richly-embroidered scarlet coat of this Italian diplomat is the warmest and boldest use of colour in the portrait. A rifle is slung on the limb of the tree behind him and his gun pouch rests beneath it. Hunting was a hobby of the upper class in the region during this time – the domestication of other animals led to a reliable source of meat, so tracking game with hunting dogs became a sport of the economically privileged (Hobgood-Oster, page 110). At the centre of the painting Durazzo’s hand casually gestures the viewer’s gaze to the bottom right of the painting. There a spaniel stands upon its kill of three or four fowl, their chests flamed with red feathers. The dog is beginning to crouch as if it has just spotted its next prey somewhere beyond the physical boundary of the frame. The man’s hunting tools and the dog’s cache represent their unification and the success of their hunt.
In stark contrast to the hunting team’s prowess, the man’s other hand rests tenderly on the elbow of the Maltese terrier in his lap. The small dog is tethered to a fine pink rope that trails to the fingertips of his wife, Ernestine Aloisia Ungnad von Weisseweolff (1732-1794), who delicately clasps the leash in both of her hands. Her feeble hold on the leash is a testament to the dog’s obedience and commitment to its handlers, and her graceful pinch on the line signals her virtuous femininity. The rope is pink, which is a less bold tone of the red captured in the man’s authoritarian coat. A pink hat is cast off behind her and, much like the man’s rifle and pouch, it symbolizes her narrative as a doting wife: her cheeks and lips blush, a small bouquet softens her hair, and the leash that Von Weisseweolff clutches leads to the lap of Durazzo – it may just as well symbolise her own obedience and devotion to her husband.
Von Weisseweolff’s defused powder blue dress and dark emerald shawl connects her colour palette to the woods behind her – her femininity is a land as huntable as the forest surrounding them. The warmly-coloured elements of the portrait relate back to the boldness of Durazzo’s red coat, so that the hound’s catch and the woman and lap dog’s crimson accessories amplify Durazzo’s power and masculinity. It is not lost on TinyHorse that the leash in this image strengthens the notion of fidelity and the gender norms of the era – the way a leash looks or is utilized can reveal information about the those attached to it. At TinyHorse, providing leads and leashes to dog professionals and owners is a meaningful act.
The Power of Self-Awareness
These instances of dogs as symbols of fidelity draw attention to how we utilize their image to magnify the story of ourselves. The creative device of anthropomorphism is not necessarily a negative phenomenon – after all we imbue dogs with so much self-reflexive power because they have been entrenched in our day to day lives for tens of thousands of years. However, analysing media that includes dogs (and other non-human animals) and bringing self-awareness to our own relationships with our non-human companions – and what we ask of them – can lead to deeper, more nourishing engagements.
As a dog walker, I have the privilege of knowing and engaging with many different dogs, and this experience has shown me how unique each dog is. Dogs thrive when their differences are noticed and attended to. I take great satisfaction in employing the versatility of TinyHorse gear to ensure that each member of my pack is at ease while we are tethered to one another – above all, having an animal on a leash signifies that you value the safety and well-being of the beloved pet in your charge, who love us without reserve. Many thanks to Paul, Carla and George from the Toronto dog walking company Bow Wow Walkers for modelling these two Handlers! Happy Valentine’s Day!
Hobgood-Oster, Laura. A Dog's History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans, 2014. Baylor University Press.
Accessed Feb 14, 2021.
Pierotti, Raymond and Brandy R. Fogg. First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, 2017. Yale University Press.