The amazing art history of Pet Portraits

THE AMAZING ART HISTORY OF PET PORTRAITS- PART ONE

If you thought that framing your pampered pooch for posterity was a new-fangled thing, take a look at ancient history and you'll get a pleasant surprise, from Cavemen to Cezanne from the Greeks to Goya, they have all featured animals in art, pet portraits are nothing new, just a continuing celebration of our close connection with animals.

Our art history of pet portraits starts way back, over 19,000 years ago with the famous cave paintings of Lascaux in southern France, you can see this beautiful horse rendered perfectly on the cave walls by Palaeolithic man below. There are over 600 paintings there and nearly all of them feature animals, ranging from bison to bears. The pigments used included red, yellow, and black colours from a complex multiplicity of mineral pigments, such as iron oxide, as well as manganese-containing pigments. It is not suggested by us that the were domesticated animals or pets, but they were the first animals painted by humans.

horse portrait

Marching onwards in terms of years, to 3500BCE, we move to the first human civilization of Babylonia, part of the Sumerian culture, there we find great depictions in art of both domesticated animals and we also find arguably our very first pet portraits alongside farm animals like goats and horses

 pet portraits

Domesticated goats from the Royal Tombs of Ur

Our Journey then moves to Ancient Egypt, where we know for certain that cats were kept as pets by the Egyptian royalty and aristocracy.

cat portrait

 

Cats in ancient Egypt occupied a special place, as the cat was central to their religion and was considered to be sacred. Many animals in Egypt were linked to gods and goddesses, but only the cat was considered to be semi-divine in its own right. As a demi-god, a cat could not be owned by a mere human. Only the divine pharaoh had that honour. As a result, all cats were in theory under the protection of the pharaoh and hurting a cat was treasonous, similar to swans on the River Thames and the Queen of England in modern day times. The depiction of feline pets in Ancient Egypt is beautiful and flowing, showing great affection for cats as pets.

cat portraits

The Greek culture which followed the decline of the Egyptian civilisation and may have borrowed many concepts from it, has a special place in western civilisation as the founders of the first democracy alongside great discoveries in mathematics, philosophy and art.

pet portraits

The Greeks displayed a great fondness for animals and pets, we can see art in the form of sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and pottery, all of it depicting pets, the dog was the most beloved pet of the Ancient Greeks and is seen in thousands of works of art,

If you’re a cat-lover, you might have been lonely in ancient Greece. There isn’t much talk of cats in the records that survive. This means that the Greeks probably were not that aware of cats.  Since cats were domesticated in Egypt, they had probably never been seen in Greece until after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt.  Egypt did not have much contact with Greece and western culture before then. Birds were also very common pets. Even large birds, such as heron and peacocks, were often kept inside the home as pets. There are many engravings that have survived to modern times that show Greeks in the company of large birds.

greek dog

Even though we might find them creepy, some Greeks kept snakes as pets.  Some of these snakes were kept because they killed rats and mice. But apparently, some were treated as regular pets. There are stories from ancient Greece about a man whose pet snake followed him around like a dog. Some Greeks apparently let their pet snakes sleep in the bed with their children!

Pets included, dogs, cats, monkeys and even rats, although dogs are decpited as pets the most often.

A greyhound reportedly saved Alexander the Great from a charging elephant. The name greyhound is believed to derived from the word Grauis, meaning Grecian. The first accurate description of a grey hound is attributed to Ovid (63 B.C. to A.D. 17).

Roman Pets

The tradition of dogs as affectionate pets continued into the ancient Roman empire, one fascinating fact is that the Romans were the first culture to feed their dogs rather than expect them to catch meals themselves. Thus we see the first manifestations of the dog being seen as “man’s best friend” in the Roman Empire.

roman dog

After the conquest of Britain, the Romans began importing the ancestors of the Irish Wolfhound. Some of these were pitted against wolves or Molossi on the sands of the arena; others were allowed to serve their intended function as chasers of wolves and deer. Wolf-hunting on horseback, with the aid of large hounds, was a popular sport on many a frontier.

roman greyhound

There are two pieces of cat evidence regarding the Romans. First: A mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, showing a cat with a bird in it’s mouth . It is a spotted gray tabby cat. Another one is a piece from the island of Britannia, it is actually not a piece of art, just evidence from construction, there are some cat footprints and a pebble that impacted and stuck to the surface. The cat was walking across the sticky surface and someone threw a stone at it to get it off!

Fish were also kept by Romans, who must often have made actual pets of them. The first person to build a piscina/aquarium was a rich former Consul who upon the death of his fish went into mourning well beyond what was considered appropriate for a child or wife. Beginning in the second century, piscinae began to appear among the wealthy homes and later became a regular feature in Roman houses.

In western civilisation the next period where we truly appreciate the beauty of art and pets, is a long time coming as the dark ages lasted until the 10th century. So we can switch to other cultures to see how they depicted pets.

 

 

Ancient China

In ancient China we see the dog as both a domesticated and hunting animal/pet

tibetan mastiff

Tibetan mastiff depicted from the Tang dynasty

There is fairly strong evidence that dogs were first domesticated in China, researchers from China and Sweden postulate that humans may have domesticated dogs from wolves as recently as 15,000 years ago. They found that, while most dogs share a common gene pool, genetic diversity is highest in East Asia, suggesting dogs have been domesticated there the longest.

Even more fascinating was the Forbidden City, home to the emperors of China during the final two imperial dynasties, the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty. Built in 1406 to 1420 AD, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers an incredible 720,000 metres.  As its name suggests, the complex was off-limits to the public and could only be accessed by the emperor, his immediate family, and thousands of female concubines and castrated male servants known as eunuchs.

 

The emperors and empresses of China’s Forbidden City lived a lavish and opulent lifestyle, but they weren’t the only ones- royal dogs also received the royal treatment, living a cushy and pampered lifestyle. - They reportedly lived in pavilions with marble floors, slept on silk cushions and were waited on by dedicated servant eunuchs who worked for the Dog Raising Office.

 These eunuchs were specifically trained to care for the royal dogs and waited on their every need, each dog was specially dressed in in luxurious outfits that were specially commissioned and tailored to each dog’s size and breed. The pet’s name was carefully recorded on the inner  lining.

 

An ornate silk costume worn by one of the Emperor's dogs inside the Forbidden city.

 

Ancient Japan- masters of cat portraits

In Japanese art we see some sublime and surprising depictiosn of pets in artistic form, Take a look at this famous cats having fun from the Edo period:-

Woodblock print of cats making merry

In temples, mouser cats kept mice from eating Buddhist scrolls. They also served a role in protecting crops and thereby safeguarding religion.

In the Edo period (1603 – 1868), Japan stopped making war and relaxed somewhat, it’s artistic culture flourished in this era of relative stability, and everyday people had the time and means for leisure, high culture was not just the pre-occupation of the ruling classes. They didn't have the internet, but they did have kabuki theatre, romantic literature, and ukiyo-e or woodblock prints produced cheaply on a mass scale, ordinary people could enjoy the best art at affordable prices in their own homes, unlike western societies, where oil paintings were the preserve of only the rich.

Woodblock and Hokusai prints are now precious works of art displayed in museums. But ukiyo-e, though extremely sophisticated, was originally a mass media and popular art form. Creating them involved carving a piece of wood into an image, painting the carving, and stamping it, perhaps thousands of times- the first mass produced art, an incredible innovation for it’s time.

During the Edo period a merchant class developed and they now had new found wealth to spend on non-essentials and luxury goods like artwork. But there were a lot of woodblock prints for sale, all competing for merchant cash, so to attract buyers, the subjects of woodblock prints became everything fashionable and popular. This included lots of pet cats!

The most important and notable woddblock cat artist was Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). He was a master of the violent and frightening, you might say his humanistic portrayals of cats in human attire were postively creepy, Kuniyoshi was obsessed with cats! His art studio was full of pussycats and visitors would often find him working with a kitty cuddled up in his kimono.

He was able to push the boundaries and take the mickey out of lots of kabuki actors were subject to these parodies as well as historically important figures, with these clever and witty cat portraits.

Less famous but more ancient than the other examples we have given is the recently discovered cave paintings on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Hand painted in an Indonesian cave it dates to at least 39,900 years ago, making it among the oldest art in the world, archaeologists, the discovery on the island of Sulawesi, vastly expands the geography of the first cave artists, who were long thought to have appeared in prehistoric Europe around that time. 

Reported in the journal Nature, the cave art includes stencils of hands and a painting of a babirusa, or "pig-deer," which may be the world's oldest figurative art ever discovered. The finds from the Maros cave sites on Sulawesi raise the possibility that such art predates the exodus of modern humans from Africa 60,000 or more years ago. Adding more mysteries to the story of human evolution.

Is this is the oldest piece of art in the whole world??? One thing is for certain, animal art is definitely full of history.