The 300-year-old pet portraits

Another aspect of the canine psyche, consistently affirmed in art, is faithfulness. This comes across emphatically in the 19th-Century paintings of British painter Edwin Landseer. Hector, Nero and Dash with the Parrot Lory (1838) shows Queen Victoria’s pet dogs as the empitome of steadfastness, contrasting with the greedy parrot below them, who absentmindedly spills nutshells all over the floor. Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner (c 1837) doubles down on the loyalty theme, showing a hound devotedly resting on her master’s coffin with doleful, skygazing eyes.

In using a dog to represent the very apogee of fidelity, he was drawing upon an age-old symbolism. Ancient Greek funerary monuments used to show dogs as icons of devotion, mourning their deceased masters. In the Renaissance, the very first books that catalogued symbols in art (such as Andrea Alciato’s Emblemata of 1531 and Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia of 1593) showed dogs denoting loyalty.

In Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a snugly sleeping pup has been inserted for precisely this reason, and marriage portraits from the Renaissance onwards frequently do the same. In the Sistine Chapel, it’s possible to see faithful hounds inserted into religious scenes by the artist Cosimo Rosselli, and tombs in medieval churches often have dogs lying at the feet of the deceased. Even Lucien Freud’s Pluto (1988), a gem of Wallace Collection’s exhibition, affirms the same message. Seen from above, and incomplete, you can imagine Freud sketching the pup as it sleeps at his feet. Although he was fiercely opposed to any notion of symbolism in his art, Freud’s portraits always show dogs in close proximity to human sitters, confirming their genetic predisposition for allegiance.

Super senses

By looking through art history, it is also obvious how impressed humanity has been with the canine superpowers of smell, hearing, strength and endurance. The first “dog portraits” were created to celebrate the impressive sensory skills of hunting dogs, and proudly included the names of particularly skilful mutts. These were commissioned by King Louis XIV of France in 1701 to decorate his country retreat, the Chateau de Marly. This new genre was especially favoured in England, and attained new levels of skill in the hands of artists like George Stubbs. Stubbs’s Ringwood, A Brocklesby Foxhound (1792) stands out in the exhibition, with the proud pup posing like a model and offering his best blue steel gaze.

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