A Brief History of Pets in Art

November 22, 2019
Portrait of two dogs playing at beach

Today, pets are caring, vital members of many households. We love our dogs, cats, birds, fish, hamsters, ferrets, and on and on. While they provide priceless companionship to us, we provide a lot in return. In fact, American pet owners provided around $31 billion dollars of goods and services to their pets in 2019.

But what is the origin of this relationship? How has it changed over time? And is there anything art can tell us about the history of pets?

Let’s look at the domestication of dogs and cats to see how our relationships with them developed over time.

Domestication of Dogs

Crib and Rosa – 1817 painting by Samuel Raven

Travel back 14,000 years ago. The world is passing through an ice age. If you were living in what we now call Northern Europe, you might very well have a domesticated dog. This dog would help you hunt, and you would share some food with your friend to keep them around. And what would you do if your dog became sick and died? Archaeological evidence suggests that humans in the area had such a deep connection to their dog friends that they honored them with ritual burial.

In the Arabian peninsula, we’ve found rock petroglyphs (images scraped into a rock’s surface) dating to around 8,000 years ago depicting dogs as comrades in the hunt. Moving forward in time, art can be found around the world showing similar scenes of humans hunting side by side with domesticated dogs.

So we see through the ritual and art of people in the paleolithic and neolithic periods that dogs have been an important part of life for a long time. But how did it begin? Dogs diverged from wolves beginning around 30,000 years ago. Perhaps some humans found wolves particularly cute, and they met wolves who found humans particularly interesting. As a tense, mutually beneficial relationship developed, we taught each other how to get more and better food. We learned how to get along. And so the humans who took care of these slowly domesticating wolves survived better. As we domesticated the dog, so the dog helped domesticate us.

Domestication of Cats

While anyone who has met a cat might doubt their domesticated status, the cat we know today is a domesticated species. Although it should be noted, cats are one of the few domesticated species fully capable of surviving in the wild, with much of their original behavior surviving to this present day.

Domestication began, most likely, when wildcats were attracted to human settlements because of the rodents feeding on our food storage and waste. Their hunting of rodents protected our food stores and kept rodent transmitted disease low.

As with dogs, humans became attached to their feline friends, so much so that they gave them ritual burial. On the island of Cyprus, we’ve found remains from over 9,000 years ago showing a human and their cat buried side by side. Cats were so important that the neolithic tribe most likely brought them over from the Middle East. Some of the earliest art depicting cats shows up in ancient Egypt, where they were venerated and even mummified.

Rise of the Pet

Woman with a Cat, ca. 1875 – Pierre-Auguste Renoir

While we have seen how the domestication of these animals arose out of mutual benefit, those dog and cat ancestors were not quite our pets. A cat kept for mousing or a dog kept for hunting might inevitably lead to profound emotional bonds, but a pet is something a little different.

Pets are kept primarily for companionship, with any economic benefits a secondary consideration. In our society, most animals are kept as pets, and if anything they are more an economic burden than benefit. Today, we keep them around mainly because we enjoy being around them.

The rise of this phenomenon really gets going in the mid-19th century. Aristocrats long had pets, particularly hunting dogs, but the industrial revolution led to higher standards of living for a small sector of society. This rising middle class soon had wealth for luxuries that they could not afford before. Pets, especially birds, became the home luxury du jour.

As middle class businessmen commissioned family portraits, we see pets appearing more and more through the century. This artwork is clear evidence of how domesticated animals moved from workmates and trusted sidekicks to housemates and family members.

The pet portraits trend is alive and well today, with some of the biggest money in art coming from pet portraits, making it a popular side hustle for young artists.

It is clear that the bonds we have with our pets is one we’ve built over a long time. The unique ability for humans to love other creatures shown in the art we make about them, the care we take with their remains. Knowing this long history, one can’t help but see their smiling, tail-wagging dog as one in a long line of loyal companions.

But I have to go now, my dog needs a walk.