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The 17th-Century Golden Age of Dutch Paintings: Dogs are Everywhere

Dogs inspire loyalty in these famed golden age paintings.

by Sophie Ploeg, PhD
Updated July 1, 2019
Gerard ter Borch, Lady at Her Toilet, c. 1660, oil on canvas.
Gerard ter Borch, Lady at Her Toilet, c. 1660, oil on canvas.

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Paintings from the 17th-century “Golden Age” of Dutch art are breathtaking in their clarity, quality of light and degree of detail. During this time, painters such Johannes Vermeer, Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch, Gabriel Metsu, Gerard ter Borch and Jan Steen created a body of work that has endured for more than 300 years.

Referred to by the 19th-century term “genre paintings,” they depict primarily interiors: café and brothel scenes (always with a moralistic tone); maids or women doing their domestic chores; and women in beautiful gowns writing or receiving love letters, looking at themselves (or us) in the mirror, or playing an instrument. Many of these subjects were repeated over and over again, and painters borrowed and stole compositions, figures and ideas from one another in their quest to produce even better works of art.

Vermeer Dogs

As they did in life, dogs appear in many of these paintings. Spaniels, Whippets and Greyhounds as well as less-familiar breeds can be seen playing, sleeping, begging and sometimes urinating. Small Spaniels kept by the lady of the house are frequently shown, while in pubs and brothels, we see more nonspecific breeds. Men and boys are often portrayed with a hunting dog such as a Greyhound or a larger Spaniel.

In fact, small, friendly and loyal Spaniels pop up again and again. (It is interesting to note that while Vermeer and Dou rarely included dogs in their genre scenes—although make note of Dou’s amazing Sleeping Dog (1650)—Metsu, ter Borch and Steen did so frequently.) The early Dutch Spaniel was a fairly generic type from which contemporary Dutch breeds such as the Kooikerhondje and the Markiesje were developed. In England, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel became very popular in the 17th century, a trend that quickly reached the Netherlands. Many of the dogs are similar-looking black, brown/white or red/white small Spaniels, companion dogs for the lady and children of the house. Their frequent appearance in paintings,  particularly genre scenes, suggests how popular they must have been at the time.

17th Century Dog Symbolism

The 17th-century Dutch were fond of symbolism, metaphors and preaching morals, and many of the genre paintings had meanings and riddles that were easy for contemporary viewers to read and recognize. Music-making was a metaphor for love, women combing their hair in front of a mirror suggested cleanliness and purity, and letters referenced the long absences required by trade and war. However, some are slightly harder for us to understand. Portraits of children often feature pet dogs, not only because the dog may have been the child’s favorite companion, but also because people considered the training of dogs to be a good metaphor for raising and educating children. A well-trained dog can be “useful,” a concept that is also applied to children of the time.

In adult portraits, hunting dogs could refer to the owner’s wealth and aristocratic status, and Spaniel companion dogs, to marital fidelity. That said, dogs can also have a more sensuous meaning, serving as warnings against lust and indecency. Finally, dogs were sometimes included in a scene for purely aesthetic reasons, perhaps to enhance the domestic atmosphere.

One of the clearest uses of dogs as a warning against sensual pleasure can be seen in the mating dogs in Frans van Mieris’s Brothel Scene (1658–1659); some think that until the 20th century, the male dog was overpainted, as it was considered indecent. The painting shows a young girl and a man. He is holding his glass out and she is about to fill it with wine. Her smiling face and his quizzical look suggest that something is going on. We get plenty of clues about what that might be: he’s tugging her skirt to pull her closer, and in the back room, we see the mating dogs as well as another couple. This scene functions as a moral warning against lust.

The presence of a dog also symbolized the more positive traits of loyalty and fidelity, as in ter Borch’s Officer Writing a Letter, with a Trumpeter (1658–1659) and its companion piece, which depicts a woman sealing a letter. Ter Borch was particularly fond of love-letter scenes; no fewer than 18 paintings known to be by his hand feature people writing letters. Both paintings include individuals waiting to dispatch the missive. The red tablecloth on the officer’s table is echoed in the red skirt of the maid waiting for her mistress’s letter in the companion painting. The officer and the lady each have a dog nearby —the officer, a Whippet or small Greyhound watching the trumpeter, and the lady, a small Spaniel sleeping at her feet.

Dogs Inspire Loyalty

Creating his own companion pieces, Metsu followed this trend. Both his letter writers are in Vermeer-style interiors, with tiled floors and paintings on the walls, and are writing or reading next to a brightly lit window. Woman Reading a Letter (ca. 1664–1666) reminds us even more of Vermeer, whose work is further referenced in the lady’s familiar yellow silk jacket. (A number of Vermeer paintings include women wearing a very similar jacket.) Metsu does, however, work these elements into his own painting language. In the picture, the maid lifts a curtain off a painting of a maritime scene, which is often used to refer to the stormy waters of marital love. The little Spaniel looking up at the maid suggests that the lady has been faithful. And in ter Borch’s The Suitor’s Visit (ca. 1658), a little Spaniel stands meaningfully between the lady and her male visitor.

The sheer beauty of these paintings carries the viewer away to another place and time, but the presence of dogs so similar to those of today grounds them. This spark of recognition provides a way to understand the 17th-century human dramas the paintings depict, making their representations of loyalty and desire familiar to a 21st-century audience. It’s a familiarity that makes these treasures even more appealing.

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Sophie Ploeg

Sophie Ploeg, PhD

Sophie Ploeg is a Dutch art historian, artist and Spaniel-lover based in the UK. She has a PhD in art history and specializes in Dutch and English 16th- and 17th-century culture.