Paws for thought: pet portraits are on the rise. But can they ever truly be art?
Want to turn your pet into a Renaissance hero? A new service will let you. But the real artists of that era treated animals with much more respect
Want to make your pet look a bit stupid? Now you can, by commissioning an artwork from Royal Pet Pawtrait. The artists behind this enterprise will turn a photo of your dog or cat into a posed portrait in what is purported to be “Renaissance” style, dressed up as a queen or soldier.
The results look like a joke by someone who hates animals. The artists have seemingly taken that painting of dogs playing poker as inspiration.
Well, if you loathe your pet … but if you don’t, you are better off taking inspiration from actual Renaissance portraits of animals to photograph or draw your own.
Pets feature in Renaissance art, but not dressed up as some hideous human parody. On the contrary, they are honoured as the different species they are.
No dogs in art have more dogness than the hounds portrayed by Andrea Mantegna in a fresco of the Gonzaga family in their palace in Mantua. They pant patiently, poised to go hunting. Maybe hunting dogs don’t count as pets in a modern sense, but these hounds are part of the family, and they will tear your head off if you disagree.
More sweetly domestic is a cat that Leonardo da Vinci drew in multiple moments as it rolls about and licks itself. Leonardo was a vegetarian who bought birds at market to set them free – it’s no surprise he draws pets well.
There are less conventional pets, too, in Renaissance art. The hermit St Jerome was shown with a tame lion. Hans Holbein’s Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling shows a real Tudor woman posing with her pet squirrel on her arm, eating a nut. It’s on a tiny lead that she holds between finger and thumb, while a pet bird perches on a branch behind her.
Presumably, this woman loved and pampered her squirrel, but there’s no gooey sentiment in Holbein’s portrait. He depicts it without a shred of anthropomorphism. Its dark eye is alien and cold as it scoffs its nut. It is another species, living beside us.
These real Renaissance animal portraits offer a simple rule for portraying your pet: see it as an animal, respect it as an animal. And don’t dress your cat up as Henry VIII, no matter how overfed it is.