The key to understanding an artwork beyond the figurative context is to look for the signs and symbols of a deeper allegorical meaning. As well as the use of particular flowers, memento mori and references to Greek mythology, artists may also use animals to portray a theme. This allows them to achieve a greater depth in their composition through the simple inclusion of a dog, cat, or even a more exotic creature. This article will look into some of the allegorical critters that you may frequently encounter in art history and the intricate connotations they may add to a painting.
Above: a selection of paintings featuring animals in various genres
Dogs in art
The most common use of dogs is to portray loyalty, you will frequently see them in portraits of women or couples as a sign of fidelity. If the female sitter is a widow, a dog may be included to show a sign of her continued devotion to a past husband. This allegory can be found in masterpieces such as Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait as a clear sign of loyalty and devotion.
Above: a detail from an 18th century portrait by Martin van Meytens the Younger, the wife holds her lapdog on a lead as it rests on her husbands lap – perhaps suggesting the dynamic of their marriage
As there are many breeds of dog, different types may have different meanings. Lap dogs may also be a sign of upper social class, as like their owner these dogs did not have to work to earn their keep. However, hunting dogs are another sign of nobility as this sport was exclusively accessible only to members of the aristocracy. Hunting dogs can be a sign of masculine discipline and vitality. Whilst some paintings of dogs may be idealised as beautiful, well-kept pets, others may use the depiction of street dogs to evoke a feeling of class struggle through hunger, homelessness and desperation.
Above: a selection of paintings featuring dogs by Jean Honoré Fragonard, Jan Dasveldt and Jan Adam Kruseman
The connection of dogs to a feeling of faithful love dates back many centuries, with examples found in ancient Greek literature such as the Odyssey – in this epic poem the hero Odysseus is said to have raised a dog called Argos, when he returns in disguise from years of travel his dog is the only one that recognises him. Dogs may also have a connotation of truthfulness, as the Greek word ‘cynic’ comes from the term to be ‘dog-like’. Further symbolism may refer to a natural intelligence or intuition.
Above: a detail from a portrait of mother and son by Thomas Sully, the dog is at the feet of the son as a sign of his family loyalty
Some artists used the same breed of dog in various portraits, this can be seen in the work of Gainsborough who often includes a fashionable white pomeranian. Some artists had a favourite breed that became synonymous with their work, such as Hogarth’s pet pug that became symbolic of himself as well as the strong bullish characteristics it portrays.
Above: dogs of various breeds, before and after oil painting and frame restoration in our studio
Cats in art
Whilst dogs represent fidelity, cats may be symbolic of sensuality and seduction. The connotations of their pose may represent a wide variety of feelings, from wild pursuits to calm domestic comforts. Due to this mixture of evocation, cats are seen as unpredictable, ready to change their presence from pleasure to malice at any moment.
Above: a detail from Two Children Teasing a Cat by Annibale Carracci, 17th century – this painting shows the children about to learn an important life lesson as the cat becomes aggravated
The feline symbolism of lust may also allow cats to represent female promiscuity. In early Christian art, cats were seen as symbols of both lust and betrayal.
Above: a detail from Portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga by Goya featuring cats stalking a pet magpie in clear symbolism of mortality
Cats can sometimes be present in place of the character of death, shown stalking small birds and other creatures as a reflection on the fragility of life and mortality. However, their predatory nature may also be subject of a humorous genre scene, showing a precarious hunt or delve into a fish bowl, causing a fleeting moment of havoc in a domestic setting, giving the painting a sense of movement. In moments such as this, cats may represent the giving in of a base instinct before rationality.
Above: a detail from The Cat at Play by Henriëtte Ronner, 1860-78
Chickens in art
Chickens in art often have Christian symbolism, with the rooster in particular having reference to Saint Peter’s denial of Christ – ‘three times before the cock crows’ – giving them a context of Christian persecution and the crucifixion story. Roosters are also a signifier of resurrection, as they mark the rise of the sun. In the 6th century, Pope Gregory I declared the rooster to be the symbol of Christianity – this is why you may find it on many church steeples.
Above: a painted Russian trinket box cover, before and after restoration in our studio
Hens have a Christian context of rebirth, as their eggs have a connotation of new life physically emerging. They may also be universally symbolic of maternity and fertility.
Above: a detail from The Sheepfold by Charles Jacque, 1857
Sheep in art
The most commonly symbolic sheep will be that of a lamb signifying Christ or innocence. In secular art a lamb may represent a gentle nature and childhood, whilst grown sheep may evoke romantic notions of countryside life and a ram is likely to represent male strength and virility.
Above: a detail from Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, 1570s
In Christian art these animals may be a reference to the parable of the lost sheep – a story in which ‘the good shepherd’ goes looking for one lost sheep rather than staying with his other ninety-nine, this is a metaphor for the joy of finding one sinner who will repent, over focusing on many others that do not need it. In these references to ‘the good shepherd’ the central figure often has a sheep around his shoulders.
Above: a detail from Shepherdess with a Flock of Sheep by Anton Mauve, 1870-88
The Lamb of God, also known as Agnus Dei, is a phrase used to refer to Jesus in the gospel of Saint John. There is also a reference to a lamb in the book of revelation, this depiction is usually a slain lamb who is still standing whilst bleeding into a holy chalice.
Above: a detail from a painting of Saint Barbara featuring Agnus Dei
Goats in art
The goat is often a reference to virility and lust due to classical connections to the goat-legged satyrs. They may also be present in pastoral scenes alongside goatherds and shepherds, symbolic of a carefree pastoral life.
Above: a detail from Goat Lying Down by Jan Baptist Weenix, 1645-60
Horses in art
The horse is often a historic status symbol, a sign of wealth and high standing in society. In many cases, equestrian portraits command a sense of power – influenced not only by the strength of the animal, but by classical connotations of ancient Roman emperors who were often sculpted on horseback. You can find out more about equestrian art here.
Above: a horse painting part way through restoration in our studio
Wild horses are a sign of untamed beauty and passion. They may also play a part in scenes of idealised pastoral life, free of social constraints. Shire horses and other working animals may have been especially romanticised in the industrial era, as new technology inspired a nostalgia for old modes of work.
Above: a detail from Wolf and Fox Hunt by Rubens, 1616
In some instances, horses have their portrait painted as a commemoration of their military service, racing triumphs or good breeding, in which case the portrait reflects the aspirations of the patron (the owner of the horse) who wants to record this creature’s importance.
Above: a horse painting before and after restoration in our studio
Donkeys in art
This could be a reference to the donkey that Jesus rode when he came into Jerusalem or the donkey that his mother rode to Bethlehem. Donkeys and mules may also have connotations of manual labour and may therefore provide a social commentary when compared to horses.
Above: a painting of Christ’s entry to Jerusalem by a follower of Benjamin West, before and after restoration in our studio
Peacocks in art
If not a sign of pure beauty and extravagance, the peacock is often depicted due to myths about its immortality. This can either have relevance for mythological scenes of Greek gods or Christian art with a focus on immaculate faith. This connection to immortal life is due to a historic idea of the peacock’s body remaining intact after death with no sign of decay. The male peacock also sheds and regrows its bright plumage every year, so it can also be symbolic of the resurrection.
Above: an etching of the goddess Juno who is frequently depicted with a peacock
Goldfinches in art
The goldfinch is found in many paintings for both religious and secular reasons. Firstly, the goldfinch was a popular pet and was found across Europe, therefore it was an easy study for artists to include in their compositions. Goldfinches were often given to children as pets and may be pictured on a string, in a cage or on a chain with a child. This allows the artist to easily capture a symbolic portrait that uses a constrained bird as a sign of retained innocence and obedience. A child holding a bird in its hands captures their gentle nature and a child confronted with the death of a pet goldfinch may be symbolic of a childhood realisation of mortality.
Above: a detail from Madonna and Child with Two Angels by Vittore Crivelli, 1481-82
The goldfinch has a great amount of symbolic power in Christian art and is often depicted in scenes from the childhood of Christ and Madonna and Child paintings. The goldfinch is used as a foreshadowing tool in a composition, as the story behind its red markings are connected to the crucifixion – this tale suggests that a goldfinch tried to remove the thorn of crowns from the head of Christ, becoming stained by his blood as a result. Due to this, a goldfinch can be symbolic of the suffering of Christ and Christian faith.
Above: an engraving after a painting by Rubens featuring Christ holding a goldfinch on a string
Butterflies in art
Insects that have a clear life cycle (such as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly) have a clear connection with the three stages of life – youth, adulthood and old age. In a religious context they may also have a connection to the resurrection due to the emergence of a butterfly after a period of being cocooned.
Above: a detail from a still life by Ambrosius-Bosschaert featuring insects
Snakes in art
In art, snakes can be representative of a variety of topics. In ancient history they were signs of good health and are still today associated with medicine through the rod of Asclepius within the caduceus symbol. Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine and it was said that snakes had given him this wisdom as there were creatures of healing and resurrection. Snakes may be a reference to the original sin and fall of man in Christian art, in simplistic terms serpents could be a signifier of the devil. In other readings of this biblical story, the snake could be seen as a voice of maturity, wisdom and guidance.
Above: a detail from a still life painting by Otto Marseus van Schrieck, 1670
Cows in art
Cattle are often present in calm countryside landscapes and therefore are associated with humility and serenity. Due to their production of milk they may also be connected to ideas of maternity and generosity. From the era of agricultural revolution, you may find representations of cows with large bodies, intended to present the great achievement of the farmer through good breeding.
Above: a painting of highland cows and gilt frame before and after restoration in our studio
How can we help?
Our professional team can perform a wide variety of specialist conservation treatments, this includes the full restoration of oil paintings, works on paper and more. Our studio also offers a technical reporting service, allowing you to investigate the history of your artwork through scientific study of the materials. A full report will help you to establish an era and stylistic history through pigment analysis and art historical research.
If you have any queries or would like to find out more about art conservation, please get in touch. Email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576