Wherever people have been, dogs have been close at our heels—and in our art. For those of us who live in cities and suburbs, dogs of all breeds are mostly thought of as house pets that live with us and, for practical purposes may as well be (though we may not admit it), furry children that blessedly never talk back. As a testament to both the diversity of The Met collection and also to the roles that dogs have played across history and cultures, you can spot plenty of pet dogs, working dogs, and even otherworldly canines in the Museum.
Even the most familiar dogs doing the most everyday things can surprise you. The Maltese—the little white dog beloved to this day—got its name from the first-century A.D. Greek writer Strabo, who documented the dog as originating on the Mediterranean island of Malta. Even then, Strabo notes, the dogs were favored by upper-class women, a role they were still fulfilling into the eighteenth century, when a Maltese became a muse for British sculptor Anne Seymour Damer. She titled her vividly naturalistic marble pup a “shock dog,” a nickname for the Maltese that seems to have fallen out of fashion.
The sculpture remains beloved. While it looks right at home in gallery 514, among Chippendale chairs and other British decorative arts of the era, a detailed reproduction is offered in The Met Store.
Though the French are often considered quite cosmopolitan, their affection for bucolic country life makes the nation one of the most reliable portrayers (and celebrators) of man’s best friend. Gustav Courbet devoted some eighty pictures to the subject of the hunt. Rosa Bonheur’s painting of A Limier Briquet Hound is just one of eight puzzles in our book of dog-themed puzzles.
Dogs as hunters is perhaps no great revelation; dating back to Roman times they’ve been depicted as hunting companions or guardians. It’s interesting that even in cultures that are more dog-adverse than ours, the use of dogs as symbols usually makes intuitive sense. In Tibet, dogs—hedonists that love eating and rolling around on the grass—are often thought of as emblems of the sensual appetites. You can see the shapes of dogs fleeing from the Mahakala Panjaranatha as he severs the bonds between us and our spiritual ignorance, here depicted as a flaming sea of sensory organs.
One frequent role for dogs in works of art is as a psychopomp, or guide to the world of the death. From ancient Egypt’s jackal-headed Anubis to the many-headed Cerberus guarding entry to the underworld, many mythologies associate dogs with death, even as the same society also reveres the dog enough to mummify a beloved pet.
It seems fitting that a species so diverse it can encompass both Great Danes and chihuahuas should be capable of being both our closest companions and our shepherds through the afterlife. It’s a fact written across The Met collection, as far back as history is recorded. Wherever humans go, dogs follow—even into the great beyond. Dogs look great in art. And for that matter, dogs look great wearing art.