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Unleashed: Dogs in Art

One Theme, Multiple Voices


The bond between humans and canines has existed for tens of thousands of years.

It makes sense: both are intelligent and social animals, and both have a sense of humor and love to play. Small wonder that dogs were the first animal to be domesticated. They help us hunt, warn us of danger, herd livestock, and comfort us, licking our actual wounds. Such is the depth of the bond that the remains of dogs have been discovered alongside humans in ancient burial sites. Starting with petroglyphs from 8,000 years ago, artists around the world and across the centuries have long celebrated their presence.

We asked staff members to shepherd a small pack from our collection.

What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?”

― Mary Oliver, poet

Divine Companions

Dogs appear early on and in a variety of scenes from the art of ancient Greece. They show up in abundance on coins, sculpture, and vase painting, where they are portrayed as playful companions, helpful hunters, and mischievous animals.

Ancient Greek

This ancient Greek pitcher, called an oinochoe, is decorated with several rows of animals. The bottom row shows five running dogs moving counterclockwise around the body of the vessel. Because of their low profile and the limited details provided by the artist, they might not be immediately recognizable as dogs to a modern viewer.

Ancient Greek

Their elongated bodies include incised details to emphasize the face and muscles while other sections, like the neck and tails, are painted red, which was characteristic of this decorating technique. Such rows of running dogs were popular motifs on these early vases and most likely illustrate Castorian hunting dogs. Ancient writers tell us that hounds, like those seen here, were the invention of the gods Apollo and Artemis and are frequently shown accompanying these divine commanders. 

—Elizabeth Benge, collection manager, Arts of Africa and Arts of the Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium

If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.

― Will Rogers, vaudeville performer

Hairless Guardians

With a raised head, peaked ears, and bared teeth, this ceramic sculpture of a dog may have served as perpetual guardian or companion. Throughout ancient Mexico, though, dogs were domesticated and also raised as a source of food. 


This short-legged, rounded-bellied, hairless dog represents an ancient breed from Mexico, named xoloitzcuintli by the Mexica (Aztec) of central Mexico. Made in Colima, one of several closely related ancient communities on the west coast of Mexico, artists skillfully modeled clay into simple forms with smooth, highly burnished, orange slip surfaces. While Colima ceramics depict a variety of realistic flora, fauna, and human forms, hairless dogs are among the most common sculptures.


As part of rituals of ancestor veneration, dozens of ceramic sculptures and vessels were placed alongside the dead, buried within multi-chambered underground shaft-tombs that are distinctive to west Mexico. Some hollow sculptures of plants and animals were shaped into containers, suggesting that they not only symbolized offerings of food, but were used to hold the sustenance needed in the afterlife, where ancestors might be led through the underworld by one of these fearsome guardians.

—Elizabeth Pope, senior research associate, Arts of the Americas and Textiles

Melancholy extends itself not to men only… Of all others, dogs are most subject to this malady, insomuch some hold they dream as men do, and through violence of melancholy run mad.

—Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)

Earthly Emissarries

Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I is one of the Dutch artist’s most famous and studied works. Though many of the symbols remain a mystery to modern viewers, this print from 1514 can be seen as both a romanticization of and a warning against intellectual obsession. To the right, an angel sits, heavy with thought and surrounded by instruments of civilization. Objects like the hourglass, armillary sphere, and geometric tools are thought to reflect worldly pursuits and scientific achievements. The artist and intellectual are both commonly touched by melancholy, sometimes neglecting earthly concerns in their pursuit of divine inspiration.

Albrecht Dürer

While it is just as common a symbol in early depictions of melancholy, the meaning behind the dog—usually sad and skinny—is still a matter of debate. The dog has been associated with melancholy since ancient times. In its most extreme form, melancholia canina was the unfortunate condition of believing oneself to be a dog or even becoming a dog, or werewolf, a belief that persisted into medieval times.

Albrecht Dürer

Over the centuries, dogs have been bred for a multitude of purposes. They are not only faithful in their devotion to humans, but also sensitive to their master’s well being, often mirroring their emotional state. Dogs have the unique ability among other animals to mimic the emotive facial expressions of humans, perhaps an evolutionary trait that reveals the close bond and shared history between us and our canine companions. If angels and artists are heavenly messengers of God, so can our pets be seen as our own emissaries here on earth. In this way, the sad dogs in depictions of melancholy reflect our love and appreciation for them as extensions of ourselves. On the coldest nights and in our darkest hours, they remain faithfully by our side.

—Robby Sexton, social media manager, Marketing

Dogs’ lives are too short. Their only fault, really.

― Agnes Sligh Turnbull, novelist

marvels of the universe

Sometimes I wonder if my obsession with taking pictures of my dog is an issue. But when I look at this Victorian photocollage from The Marvelous Album of Madame B., I feel the same obsessive love and care jump off this page.

Marie-Blanche Hennelle Fournier

Who was the dog-loving Madame B? The evidence points to Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier, known as Blanche (1831–1906), the second wife of a career French diplomat. She combined photographs with drawing and watercolor to create heartfelt compositions that could be playful, fantastic, and surreal.

If you open up my camera roll you’ll gasp at the number of photos that include an aging bearded terrier in basically the same pose, over and over. The last few years those photos have become increasingly important as I observe my fuzzy companion likely entering her last year of life. Our relationship makes me think about Madame B’s prominence of shaggy, obediently sitting puppies, and how she probably carefully cut and arranged each image, possibly posing the dogs in a studio so that the composition gives you a double-take of a family album. What a marvel. The illustrated pups (out of the fancy dog house!) frame the intricate set of images, reinforcing a level of sensitivity and care—almost as if she couldn’t limit herself to just a handful of images, maybe asking herself: Can’t I just fit in three more? That adorable dog on the table just needs to be squeezed in…

As for me, I will continue to snap daily photos of my beloved pooch. I will hold onto these images, reflecting on the number of shared life moments we’ve had and how she’s become a key member of our family, making it all that more marvelous.

—Emily Fry, executive director, Interpretation

In times of joy, all of us wished we possessed a tail we could wag.

― W. H. Auden, poet

One shell of a dog

A woman stands with her faithful dog, both composed of larger-than-life polyester seashells—not unusual in the work of German artist Katharina Fritsch (born 1956), who makes reproductions of everyday objects but with extreme shifts of size and color.

Katharina Fritsch. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In this case, the object resembles a souvenir you might find at a gift shop in a beach town, only now, the woman stands tall and she’s as pink as calamine lotion. She appears delicate, her waist as tiny as her wrist and her face cracked open right down the middle. Her snow-white dog, on the other hand, is rounded and sturdy, clamshell legs rooted firmly in the ground. He wears a thick collar attached to no leash, and what he lacks in height he makes up for in stance, ready to protect his owner at all costs.

Katharina Fritsch. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

I revisit Katarina Fritsch’s Frau mit Hund often, each time picturing the waddle of the dog as he trots slightly in front of his shell mother. His coiffed little ears—sticking out slightly to indicate his relentless pride—make me think of my own dog, Alfie, who has no sense of his own smallness or vulnerability. I want to pick the shell dog up and hold him tightly against my chest, but then I remember: I’m at a museum, and he’s made of shells.

Fritsch has said that her work is inspired when she gets a picture in her mind and something “completely normal turns into a miracle.” In Alfie’s case, he’s a miracle turned small and furry.

—Chelsea Southwood, associate director, Philanthropy

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