Posted by: smartyy638 | December 12, 2014

Pet Portraiture

After our many discussions about human portraiture, I stumbled upon an article about the revival of pet portraiture in luxury fashion. Here is the link from Gale Cengage database, you may need to use your MoHo login to see it—

Sales happily go to the dogs a century after its Victorian heyday

Apparently, pet portraiture originates from the Victorian Era with Queen Elizabeth I at its helm. She enjoyed commissioning portraits of her dogs; the aristocracy followed shortly after. Interestingly enough, it seems that Queen Elizabeth featured her pets in her own portrait in times of peace, shown by the following portrait done by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder between 1580-1585. It remains Gheeraerts the Elder’s only surviving oil painting. We can see her tiny dog at the right bottom corner, at her feet with his gaze directed at her.  He is cuddled close; she grasps an olive branch.


The trend continued with Victorian painters such as Sir Edwin Landseer in his painting of Windsor Castle—

Landseer_WindsorCastleInModernTimes g

And French painter, Gustave Courbet, of the same era in a self-portrait with his dog—

So why dogs? How did they function in portraits with others? As props? Supporting characters? I suppose this strange little branch of portraiture made me wonder about the way we use particular props in portraits in order to portray specific character traits or moods. This was especially true in our discussion of Lady Betty Delme (i.e. setting, displays of wealth, etc.) Furthermore, the presence of dogs in Victorian literature and art is remarkable and surprisingly evident—the presence of stray dogs in Oliver Twist, the expression of “dying like a dog,” in Dickens’ Great Expectations, Holmes’ Hounds of Baskerville, and then, of course, dogs in aristocratic portraiture. What do you guys think? Maybe some of you art history/art lovers can help me out with this one.  There exists also a dichotomy between dog as man’s best friend and of bestiality (i.e “die like a dog”) which fascinates me. Also, I don’t know if you have ever seen these before, but I recall these prints being particularly popular in the early 90’s:


There was also a TV show I watched as a kid called Wishbone in which a Jack Russell Terrier  plays lead characters from classic literature. The show’s episodes riff on Oliver Twist, Hounds of Baskerville, Scandal in Bohemia, Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice, and Tom Sawyer. Such fun.

Anyways, I just wanted to post these for fun — (yes, people STILL do this)

Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II

random person and her pet portrait with Santa (you’d be shocked how many of these there are…)


Happy Holidays!!

Mason, Brook. “Sales happily go to the dogs A century after its Victorian heyday, pet portraiture is enjoying a lucrative renaissance. Brook Mason reports.” Financial Times 7 Apr. 2007: 9. Academic OneFile. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.


  1. I literally just wrapped up my research paper on pretty much this exact topic, so I couldn’t resist commenting on this. Dogs in general are considered to be the personification (weird word choice, I know) of loyalty, so in portraits like that of Queen Elizabeth I, where her dog is staring up at her, it’s a symbol of the loyalty/devotion/admiration she’s owed – as in, this is the embodiment of fidelity and it’s looking up to you, therefore, you deserve all the fidelity. That portrait in particular is really interesting to me, though, because it’s such a tiny dog, and it’s really obviously a ladies pet. You’d expect such a powerful person, female or not, to have a much stronger looking dog as a companion – but maybe that was a result of her wanting her specific dog in the picture, and the artist doing what he could with what he’d been given.
    Dogs kind of had their own cult following (not unlike they do now) – portraits of just them, without their humans, were massively popular and the trope of the ‘rescue dog’ was especially so (Landseer in particular was known for this). It’s a lot like the Lassie story – portraits of dogs rescuing people or other animals without apparent human guidance were depicting them as inherently moral animals, with this drive to do good and help that was instinctive; there was a pretty popular idea that dogs were inherently virtuous.
    Back to dogs in portraits, though – they were kind of like props, kind of like supporting characters, kind of like a part of their owners. They definitely said something about the people they were with, even if it was just about their class or their family life (fancy dog = high class and having a fondness for your pet/animals in general was considered to reflect in devotion to family life). I’m sure sometimes a dog was just a dog, but sitting for a portrait was such a undertaking, and filled with so much symbolism, most of the time the dog got folded up into that too.
    (Most of this information is from a book called Picturing Animals in Britain, by Diana Donald.)

  2. What a cool thread! I love dogs very much and have lots of farm animals, and I also am very fond of making art — so you can imagine that I draw and paint my animals quite a lot! I get asked to draw other people’s pets pretty frequently as well, and working on these “portraits” has made me think a lot about the relationship between humans and animals as expressed in portraiture. One of my current projects is a drawing of Juju, a tiny fluffy white yorkie-poo that belongs to a friend of my mom’s. Because Juju lives in South Carolina I’ve been using photographs and emailed descriptions to draw her, and although the picture is going well, I can’t help feeling a little weird because it occurs to me that this is probably what the portrait process was like for someone like Lady Dedlock or the woman from “My Last Duchess” — people regarded as trophies. In cases where the portrait’s subject is dehumanized and/or cannot speak for itself, artists have to rely on their own perception of character or someone else’s description in order to produce a work which captures personality in addition to likeness. Talking about pets is difficult because language leads us to either objectify or anthropomorphize them, and making art of pets presents much the same problem.

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