The Shy Museumgoer


Old Masters: The dog stays in the picture

The magical connection between humans and animals is hard to understand, but undeniable. In ancient Greek mythology, animals embodied the gods themselves in countless tales about courage and love. In Roman mythology, the Eternal City’s twin founders were abandoned as infants and thrown into the Tiber River, only to be rescued by a she-wolf who took care of the kiddos in her den in Palatine Hill.

Animals first entered our imagination as messengers and promises. For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions — sometimes sacrificial, sometimes oracular.

John Berger, “Why Look at Animals,” 1977

Time and again, it’s the dogs in Old Master paintings that charm me with their transparent emotions and their ability to tell a good story.

Vittore Carpaccio, "Saint Augustine in His Study (1502)
Vittore Carpaccio, Saint Augustine in His Study (1502)

In Saint Augustine in His Study, a very likable white dog attests to the profound relationship between two legendary philosophers who became pen pals in 394 CE. Although Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome frequently disagreed, their high-spirited (some might say rancorous) letters laid the foundation for Christian thought on personal freedom, conscience, and death.

When asked to describe Jerome’s mental prowess, Augustine said: “What he is ignorant of, no mortal has ever known.”

Venetian Renaissance artist Vittore Carpaccio depicts the younger of the two theologians absorbed in his work when — out of the blue — a radiant light bursts in through the window and illuminates his well-appointed home office. Augustine’s telepathic connection with Jerome is so strong, he knows instantly what the aberration means: The older theologian has just died and is about to enter heaven.

Even the dog senses the magnitude of the moment.

As far back as Aristotle, dogs were assigned the trait of extrasensory perception. The little Maltese is mesmerized by the light rushing in through the window, and his reaction confirms that something supernatural is going on here.

Eric Denker, Lecturer Emeritus, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 2023

Dogs heighten the emotion in a painting

In this genre painting by Northern Renaissance master Pieter Bruegel, a pack of dogs amplify the mood of three men returning home from the hunt.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Hunters in the Snow (1565)"
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow (1565)

Bruegel painted Hunters in the Snow, the first large-scale depiction of winter in Western art history, during the coldest period of a regional weather phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age.

Down in the valley, thick icicles cover a mill wheel and bring it to a halt. A few people gather firewood, like the woman on the bridge who is shouldering a heavy bundle of sticks. Young and old mingle on the frozen ponds, where several villagers are playing a Dutch sport called kolf — a cross between golf and modern-day ice hockey.

In the foreground, three hunters trudge past an inn where the kitchen staff is preparing to roast a pig. The crooked sign above the straw fire depicts the likeness of Saint Eustace, the patron saint of hunters. I assume the saint took a personal day off because these hunters are returning empty-handed, with just a scrawny red fox to show for their effort.

Notice it’s not the men whose body language conveys their humbling defeat. The hunting dogs hang their heads and tuck their tails between their legs.

Dogs convey loyalty and devotion

What does it mean when a dog looks out of the picture and meets our gaze? Is Fido trying to tell us something?

William Hogarth, "The Lady's Last Stake (1759)"
William Hogarth, The Lady’s Last Stake (1759)

In The Lady’s Last Stake, a married woman and an unmarried army officer are playing piquet, perhaps the most popular card game in England and France until the twentieth century. They are playing for money.

The woman abruptly throws her cards in the fireplace. She doesn’t like the hand she’s been dealt, nor is she blessed with an unlimited budget, as her husband — who is traveling — gently reminds her in a letter lying on the floor.

The army officer (a charming opportunist) offers to play one more round. No matter the outcome, he will return her money. But if she loses, she must take him as her lover.

The color rises in the lady’s cheeks as she considers his sexual proposition, while bracing herself on a fire screen meant to protect her from the heat.

Many of the picture’s decorative embellishments double as thought balloons. A painting of The Penitent Magdalene, a woman accused of being promiscuous, hangs over the fireplace. On the clock, the figure of Cupid with a scythe refers to Father Time clipping the wings of love (some might say sex). Four candles are lit, but they won’t burn for much longer.

Will the lady choose to be ruined financially or morally?

British artist William Hogarth selected a classical moment of crisis, when a choice is offered between good and evil.

The theme was familiar to the ancients, but Hogarth transposes the theme from allegory and myth to the real world, with all its warmth of life, its temptations, its irresolutions, its immediacy.

Mary Webster, “Hogarth,” 1979

Underneath the game table, a happy and contented dog meets our gaze. Fido, a symbol of marital fidelity, is putting the lady’s cards on the table, figuratively speaking. “I don’t care too much for money,” she will tell her seducer. “Money can’t buy me love.”

Dogs humanize religious paintings

Long ago in Italy a very pretty girl named Margaret lived with her parents on a small farm. When Margaret was seven years old, her mother died and her father quickly remarried. In a tale as old as time, Margaret and her stepmother did not like each other very much.

Gaspare Traversi, "Saint Margaret of Cortona (1758)"
Gaspare Traversi, Saint Margaret of Cortona (1758)

In her early teens, Margaret fell in love and ran off with a wealthy nobleman. They lived together in his castle near Montepulciano, but did not marry. Margaret was given fine clothing, jewels, even her own horse, which she rode through the streets without giving a second thought to the scandal she was causing. She gave birth to a son.

One day, her lover failed to return from a trip. Alarmed, Margaret followed his favorite dog into the Tuscan forest, where she discovered the man’s body, severely beaten and hastily buried under a pile of dead branches.

The crime shocked Margaret into thinking differently about life. She returned to her father’s house, but was turned away by her stepmother. With nowhere else to go, she sought refuge with a group of Franciscan friars in Cortona. Quite often, she was overcome with remorse.

In this painting by Italian artist Gaspare Traversi, Margaret sits in a rustic room inside the friary, listening to an angel describe in grim detail how Christ suffered willingly so that Margaret would be forgiven for her sins and could start a new life. Satan, who understands he is about to lose a follower (some might say subscriber), covers his face and withdraws into the fires of hell.

Meanwhile, a handsome spaniel locks eyes with Margaret’s son. The little boy’s father may be gone, but his devoted dog stays in the picture.