At the risk of seeming crass, I noticed two paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery which included fairly prominent images of dogs defecating.
One was in Rembrandt & Co: Dealing in Masterpieces, the current temporary exhibition at the Gallery and the second was in the permanent collection. It seems a quite bizarre subject to include in a painting. What was the artist trying to say with these dogs? What purpose did they serve?
Looking into the matter further, defecating dogs seem to be a minor theme in Dutch art of Rembrandt’s period. The painting in the Collection is one I mentioned in my previous post as having caught my eye (for a different reason) – Adam Pynacker’s Landscape with Sportsmen and Game.
The catalogue makes no comment on the meaning of the dog, but states that:
The defecating dog seems to derive from the work of Ludolf de Jongh (R.E. Fleischer, Ludolf de Jongh, Doornspijk, 1989, p.57 and fig.48).
Works by Ludolf de Jongh (1616-1679) are present in the Getty Collection and the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. An example of de Jongh’s work with said dogs can be seen here.
In the Rembrandt exhibition the relevant piece is number 43 – The Good Samaritan which apparently is in the Wallace Collection, although they only illustrate an etching taken from the painting on their website. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has another state of the etching. Here the presence of the dog is described in this way:
Among Rembrandt’s additions here to the largely empty foreground that appeared in the painting is the defecating dog that adds a note of everyday reality to the biblical scene.
Robert Hughes, in the Guardian, echoes this interpretation:
Sometimes Rembrandt’s subjects are too connected to the commonplace world for everyone to like them. There is an extremely vulgar side to Rembrandt. This in itself is no surprise, given the bawdry for which 17th-century Holland was notable. It may well be that giving vent to it was Rembrandt’s compensation for the anal obsession with neatness and cleanness that characterised Dutch domestic life. He did etchings of a man peeing and a woman defecating. A dog, tensely extruding a large turd from its backside, appears in the foreground of The Good Samaritan. . . .
There is apparently an essay by Goethe about The Good Samaritan which also talks in detail about the dog. I’m trying to source this text and will update this post when I’ve read it.
So, the dogs bring an element of real life to these idealised scenes and epic activities. I also read somewhere that they can be included to pass comment on the commissioner of the painting, but now cannot find that reference, so again, I’ll update this post when I find that information.