Between the hit animal-portrait blog The Dogist, the endless dog and cat pics filling your Instagram feed, and the glorious (and, alas, now-over) days of animals acting silly on Vine, you'd think that we're living in the golden age of pet portraiture. The digital world has given us more opportunities than ever to record our pets' weird cute moments (you're guilty of snapping an iPhone video of your dog sleeping upside down and snoring like a trombone, don't deny it). However, before anybody says we've all turned into narcissists and that millennials are too busy photographing their pets to buy property, let me tell you something: owners immortalizing their pets through art is a long-standing historical tradition — and in comparison to various other pet-obsessed points in history, our puppy photo blogs are actually kind of weak sauce.
The practice of of domesticating animals is extremely ancient; historians have dedicated a lot of time to figuring out the precise moment that dogs became domesticated instead of wild, but the line between working animals and ones that existed to provide companionship was often a blurred one throughout human history. Because of this, portraits, statues and oil paintings of beloved animals have been around for a very long time, and they've conveyed some very complex things about their owners. In short, we've loved our pets — and loved to honor them through putting their picture in a place of honor — for a long, long time.
Ancient Rome: Dog Pictures Were Believed To Protect Homes
The ancient Romans were devotees of domestic dogs, and saw them as protectors of their homes and hearths. Unlike us, though, they expressed their feelings about their guard dogs through mosaic portraits, which were placed at entranceways. Theirs were the first "Beware Of The Dog" signs, elaborate and lifelike mosaics that would presumably terrify the bejesus out of enterprising thieves. Historians believe that the eyes of Roman dog mosaics were meant to "ward off evil", and so were depicted with particular care.
The big moment for depicting beloved pets in Roman society, though, was after they'd died. If you think you've put too many photos of Fluffy on your Twitter lately, compare yourself to the many Romans who put up fully detailed statues of their departed animals, complete with epitaphs and mournful inscriptions, over their graves. (Some, charmingly and a bit heartbreakingly, were buried with funeral goods like the Romans themselves: big bones were common in dog graves.)
Medieval Europe: Tiny Dogs Were Symbols Of Sexual Potency
In medieval Europe, cats weren't really regarded as particularly charming domestic animals (we'll get onto that in a minute) — but miniature dogs were considered very meaningful. Though what they meant was a little odd: in many French romances of the era, little dogs were symbols of female sexuality. Small dogs were exclusively owned by wealthy women, as men had big hunting dogs and horses — and said women were often at the center of popular plots about adultery and desire.
So when small dogs show up in paintings from this time, they're hinting at both the owner's noble upbringing and her sexual power. Men's pets, meanwhile, were meant to highlight their virility and skills, but also carried a heap of other symbolic connotations. Being shown with your pet hawks, for instance, marked you as an aristocrat, but could also connote that you were lazy or lustful. Medieval Europeans had to be very careful about what animals they put in their portraits.
However, small dogs didn't just carry meaning for their owners in this life. One of the most charming ways in which medieval Europeans depicted their pet dogs was in their own effigies in tombs; noblewomen in particular were often shown in marble or brass effigies with their small dogs at their feet. (You knew it was a pet dog because it had an ornate collar with bells on it, marking it out from a working dog.) They weren't only there to make the woman's class clear, though — they also symbolized eternal companionship, because of classic ideals about canine loyalty.
And where were cats? Well, medieval Europeans didn't give them nearly the same regard as dogs; they were still viewed as either working animals or, in a lot of medieval art, purely symbolic (cats turn up as representations of laziness and lust). Upsettingly, the big depiction of cats in medieval art is usually around their deaths, often in large packs, because they were feared to be agents of the Devil. Hug your kitten a bit tighter and be happy they were born in the era of enormous scratching posts instead.
Renaissance: Dogs Show That You're Rich, But Monkeys Show That You're Richer
As the Renaissance bloomed and Enlightenment ideas entered European thought, conceptions of pets didn't change all that much. They were still, largely, the domain of the wealthy, who could afford to keep animals purely for fun and companionship — but widening trade means exotic pets like monkeys and squirrels began popping up in portraits of this era as signs of the subject's wealth. (Henry VII of England had kept a monkey for his own amusement.) Consider it an early version of the guy posing with a tiger in his Tinder photo.
A very specific permutation of this theme turns up in the era's portraits of Venetian sex workers and courtesans, which often included pets; art historians think maybe they were aspiring to the class levels of "respectable" noblewomen and showed themselves with lap dogs to emphasize the point.
However, images of dogs in particular were becoming symbols of a new ideal: a happy domestic life. The seventeenth century in particular ushered in a new age of pet dog portraiture, with painters striving for realism in their depiction of loyal canine companions around the home. Cats, meanwhile, also began to attain new symbolism as domestic animals, particularly when they had kittens, but they were still seen as potentially a bit dangerous.
1800s: Pets Signify Your Status (Or How Much The Public Hates You)
The 19th century was the biggest era in history for pet portraiture, particularly in England. Wealthy and middle-class people alike sought out artists to create portraits of their animals, both out of affection and to demonstrate social status. Cats and birds finally attained equal domestic pet status and, along with dogs, pop up in portraits all over the place, either with their owners or on their own, to signify wealth, health and charming domestic happiness, one of the massive ideals of the Victorian era.
However, in addition to all that sweetness, pet artists also developed a satirical streak. Portraits and cartoons of pets could be used to lampoon their owners in the popular press. It wasn't exactly a new technique — Hogarth, the great artist of the early 1700s, would depict his own dog urinating on a collection of Old Masters in the corner of a self-portrait (though he then painted over it) - but it came to new heights. The death of King George's pet giraffe led to a heap of cartoons poking fun at his propensity for exotic pets over his own people, and it was a common trope to find a pet dog urinating on something in the corner of a sketch while its famous owners did something stupid. Instagram looks pretty weak by comparison.
1900s: We Finally Figure Out How To Share Pictures Of Our Puppies With Friends
The development of photography led to the invention of one of the sweetest methods of pet-boasting in history: the pet postcard. From the 1880s onwards, it was not only acceptable but entirely expected that you'd dress up your pets in some hilarious outfits, get them photographed (either professionally or by an amateur), and then make the photograph into a postcard to send to relatives, friends and people you thought would find it funny. Studios in America in the 1900s were set up for precisely this purpose. And yes, a lot of the postcards were written "from" the perspective of the animal in question.
In Europe, the animal in question was most often the now highly-fashionable pet cat. Yes, the cat had finally found its moment in the sun; a visitor to France and Germany in 1908 commented on the "craze" for photographs of cats across the countries, and a photography magazine of the same year assured readers that cats were cooperative subjects who were "easy models." Cartes de visite, as they were called, were big business for decades, and are now highly collectible, in large part because they often involved ridiculous poses and costumes. One specialist in the field, Harry Whittier Frees, who published an entire book of domestic cat photographs in 1929, said he preferred photographing kittens because they were the most "versatile animal actor".
So don't take any sh*t from your mom because you keep sending her images of your dogs with Snapchat filters on them. Just say you're taking part in one of humanity's oldest art history traditions. Then add a party hat.