By CHERESE COBB
Thirty-five thousand years ago represents a special time in human history: the creation of cave art. Among handprints and humanoids, there was man’s best friend. After the invention of portable art in the Old Stone Age, these five dog breeds made appearances lounging on the laps of kings and queens, nuzzling the faces of famous creatives, and comforting the children of commoners—and that’s just a small fraction of the dog art that exists between the past and the present.
Bred to sit on the laps of Chinese emperors during the early Shang Dynasty, Pugs were considered symbols of status and protection. Nicknamed “Foo Dogs” by Silk Road travelers, they were believed to be able to take down lions, which aren’t even native to China. This myth is most likely grounded in traditional Chinese statuary. Foo Dogs resemble Pugs but are actually stone lions that are covered in armor with their mouths open in mid-roar. They’re commonly placed at businesses, temple gates, home entrances and estates. Designed in pairs, the female (yin) protected the people dwelling inside the home while the male (yang) protected the structure itself.
During the 1400s, merchants and travelers brought Pugs—who once had longer muzzles, legs, and tails—to the Netherlands, where they spread across Europe, becoming a French favorite. “The women of Louis XVI’s court could afford to have these little, live-in warmers,” says Shannon Monroe, an art historian at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, New York. “It’s no well-kept secret that Pugs aren’t the slimmest of dogs. They were able to keep their masters warm by sitting on their laps, laying on their feet, and getting in bed with them.”
By the 1700s, Pugs had “exploded onto the Western art scene”. William Hogarth incorporated the little dogs, including his own named Trump, into many of his paintings. Johann Joachin Kaendler, a sculptor in the late 18th century, even created an entire series of Pug figurines, which served as a secret emblem for the German underground Freemason Lodge known as the Order of the Pug.
Greyhounds originated in Egypt around 9000 B.C. and are the only dogs mentioned by name in the Bible. Frequently displayed on murals in the tombs of the Pharaohs, Queen Hatshepsut—the second female pharaoh—traded four of her finest Greyhounds for cattle herds, myrrh trees, a living southern panther, and ten-foot-high piles of gold, spices and fur.
Greyhounds graced the backs of ancient Greek coins, and Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, often painted them lying near his feet. “In Homer’s epic, the Odyssey, Argo is the beloved and loyal dog of King Odysseus, and although the faithful and tragic animal’s breed is never officially given by the poet, he’s mentioned to have been a swift lean hunting dog, which has lead many scholars to believe that he was a Greyhound,” says Monroe.
Nearly becoming extinct during times of famine in the Middle Ages, the breed also makes many appearances in medieval manuscripts, sometimes in the company of mythological creatures such as griffins and dragons. A symbol of celebrity and loyalty, the breed was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, the last Tudor monarch, and Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. “The dog in [19th century painter] Paul Gauguin’s Pastorales Tahitiennes was probably a Greyhound since the scene he sets is one where a beautiful island woman plays the flute, an instrument devoted to the adoration of an island moon goddess,” Monroe says. “Being European—and liking to inject a bit of that iconography into his work—he’d have been familiar with Western depictions of Diana, goddess of the hunt and moon, and her Greyhounds.”
Collies were brought to England in the 1800s and were shown under the name “Scotch Sheep Dog” in the Birmingham English Dog Show. Queen Victoria had at least two Collies, Noble and Sharp, who were very ill-tempered to everyone but the Queen, according to the Pall Mall Gazette. Reigning for 64 years, she most likely helped the popularity of the Collie and its transition from working dog to family pet.
Charles Burton Barber, a popular English painter of children and pets, captured the special relationship between this breed and children. “A Special Pleader shows a perfectly charming scene of a little girl being punished and the dog looking beseechingly at someone out of the composition, presumably the child’s caretaker,” Monroe says. “The dog’s expression not only gives the painting its name but alludes to the Collie’s charm as being a caring, special member of English households.”
Collies were also popular with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of English painters, poets, and critics founded in the late 19th century. “In William Hunt’s Collie and Lamb, the dog stands over the obviously distressed lamb [a symbol of innocence and allegory of sacrifice] caught in the snow and calls for help,” Monroe says. Richard Ansdell, an English oil painter of animals and genre scenes, also painted the breed working in nature, “almost evocative of British Romantic era paintings with a touch of the sublime in a stormy sky and a nostalgia for the pre-industrial revolution era.
One of the oldest of the toy spaniels, the Papillon (pah-pee-yown), also called the Continental Toy Spaniel, has a high-domed head and flashy-looking fringed ears that somewhat resemble butterflies. The “big dog in a small body” also comes in a drop-eared variety called the Phalène (fa-len), which means “moth,” a cousin of the butterfly that folds its wings at rest.
Found in Europe as early as the 1200s, the breed’s ancestry is a mystery. While Italy, Belgium, France, and Spain are all strong contenders, a terracotta statue of the breed was discovered in a second-century Roman tomb in Belgium. During the 17th century, Italian breeders transported the little dogs to the court of Louis XV on the backs of mules. Madame de Pompadour, King Henry II of France, and Marie Antoinette—whose dog named Thisbe stood faithfully outside the prison where the hapless queen awaited beheading—owned Papillons. The breed has been traced back to depictions from the 16th century: a testament to its tenacity and staying power. Old masters like Rubens, Fragonard, Van Dyke, and Watteau portrayed Papillons in various artworks, usually accompanying their doting mistresses. “Titian painted them into so many of his works that they became known as Titian Spaniels,” Monroe says. In his Venus of Urbino, a young woman reclines on a bed in an opulent Renaissance palace. She is sensuous and gazes at the viewer kindly. A Papillion, a symbol of marital fidelity, sleeps at her feet while a maid looks down upon a young child playing, which symbolizes motherhood. “The little Papillion has survived…better than the royal families in whose courts they were once such a favorite,” says June Peterson-Crane, a historian at the Papillon Club for America. “Men, women, and children of all ages take them into their laps and hearts.”
Perhaps, the Xoloitzcuintlis’ (pronounced show-loh-eets-KWEENT-lee) ego stems from the fact that it’s one of the most easily recognized and most often depicted dog in the Americas. “Beginning as early as 300 B.C., they appear as single effigy vases, as dancing figures, as old and wrinkly and pregnant, and sometimes with an ear of corn in their mouths,” Monroe says. The Olmec tribe, often regarded as the mother culture of Mexico, and the Aztecs raised Xolos (“sho-los”), which were eaten by the wealthy, usually only on special occasions. They conducted canine sacrifices by shooting them with arrows, asphyxiating them, or throwing the hog-tied animals on rocks before extracting their hearts, which were later cooked and given to Tlaloc, the rain god. The Mayans also mummified “Colima dogs,” believing that they would eventually join them in the underworld, called Xibalba, roughly translated as “place of fear.”
During WWI, military scientists experimented on the Mexican Hairless with poisonous gases because of the similarities between the animals’ slightly waxy skin and that of humans, which accelerated the already-dwindling population. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the breed caught the eye of artists. Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted a series of frescoes on the stairway walls and corridors of the Palacio Nacional: one depicts a Xolo snarling at a European dog imported by the Spanish conquistadors. They also make cameo appearances in several of Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits including Itzcuintli Dog with Me and Portrait with Small Monkey.