Dutch 17th century art is full of dogs. The highly popular (then and now) and numerous genre paintings feature our furry friends so often, they seem part of the furniture. Not only were dogs useful, loved and popular companions, they also made fabulous painting models. Spaniels especially feature repeatedly in these beautiful little art works. Spaniel-biased as I am I would totally agree they are the best looking dog all round, yet in these 17th century pictures they are not always featured for their positive traits...
Genre painting is a term which the Dutch did not use in the 17th century. The term was invented in the 19th century to refer to paintings depicting every day life. The works of Dutch 17th century masters such as Johannes Vermeer, Metsu, Jan Steen and De Hoogh have made the topic forever popular, depicting such timeless characters, morals and topics we still identify with today.
Dutch genre paintings was probably even more popular in the 17th century itself, decorating the beautiful homes of the many rich traders who made Holland flourish. Genre paintings often show cafés and brothels but also quiet interiors with women doing a domestic job, writing a letter or looking in the mirror. The genre painters of the time all lived and worked, although in different cities, close together and they knew each other and each other's work. Topics, compositions and model poses were copied and borrowed, improved upon and given a new twist.
Dogs As badly behaved as the humans
In a lot of the 17th century Dutch genre paintings we see dogs featured. A lot of them are spaniels but we also see greyhounds and whippets. In brothel en cafe scenes they seem as badly behaved as the humans in the picture: they urinate, mate or fight and generally show (and illustrate) a total lack of morals. Tut tut.
A well known and very naughty painting is by Frans van Mieris who painted a brothel scene in 1658-9, which included a pair of mating dogs in the background. A much clearer referral to the dubious morals of the place would be hard to find.
Click the images for an enlargement
In the more quiet interior scenes we often see little (sometimes tiny) spaniels that are clearly companion dogs to the lady in the picture. Many Dutch 17th century genre paintings are full of moralistic symbolism and the dogs in these pictures are part of that scheme. When they warn us of loose morals in brothel scenes, they remind us of (marital) loyalty in quiet domestic scenes. And like dogs, children can be trained into good and well behaved adults through education and schooling.
In this tiny painting by Van Mieris (above), however, a dog features sleeping quietly while the lady of the house writes a letter. In another painting by Gerard Ter Borch (below) a similar scene is depicted. In those instances the dog most likely refers to marital loyalty and the lady will be reading a letter from her husband or lover.
Besides lovely symbols of good or bad morals, dogs were also included in paintings simply because they suited the composition or scene. A stretching dog can be found regularly in an otherwise empty corner in a busy tableau of people and things, or a small dog balances a single portrait out nicely. Yet we cannot deny that the Dutch art buyers loved some moralistic finger wagging in their pictures and the artists of the time provided them with plenty.