A work that has penetrated every pore of popular culture, Dogs Playing Poker was first painted in 1894 by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, an American artist who worked several odd jobs before he turned to painting. However, the work refers to no just one painting, but eighteen of them. In addition to the artist's original Poker Game from 1894, there are sixteen other oil paintings commissioned in 1903 by Brown & Bigelow to advertise cigars, and an additional 1910 painting. All of these paintings are populated by comical, humanized dogs, while only nine paintings feature dogs playing poker.
With their expressive faces, smoker pipes, and whiskey glasses, Coolidge’s poker dogs have become iconic. Critic Annette Ferrara has described Dogs Playing Poker as "indelibly burned into ... the American collective-schlock subconscious ... through incessant reproduction on all manner of pop ephemera".
Despite their popularity, these paintings were never considered to be genuine art by critics.
Although having no formal training, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge had a talent for creating playfully surreal, humorous illustrations that he sold to various magazines. After trying his hand at a range of professions such as sign painting, banking, pharmacy, and newspaper publishing, he developed a career as an in-demand illustrator. He was also an originator of "comic foregrounds", the cartoon murals seen at carnivals that people can stick their heads into for a funny photo opportunity.
Coolidge's gift for crafting playfully surreal images culminated in his magnum opus, the absurdist canine series for which he’s best remembered today. His first painting in a series, Poker Game, features four dogs playing an intense game of poker, with the main focus on a contemplative dog in the middle hiding his hand. The dog on the left holds Four of a Kind, one of the best hands players can have for many popular variations. This detail suggests the work is about revealing a great hand, highlighting the most exciting moment in a game of poker. This work was sold for $658,000 at a 2015 Sotheby's New York auction, and was followed by Looks Like Four of a Kind, a painting with a much severe and oppressive mood, characterized by an abundance of red.
It wasn't until almost a decade after the first poker dog painting that Coolidge was commissioned by the Minnesota-based promotional firm Brown & Bigelow. The artist went on to create a total of sixteen dog paintings, depicting them in all sorts of humanistic scenarios, including a football game, a road trip, and a jester performing for a royal couple.
The most popular work from the series is A Friend in Need from 1903, which was endlessly reproduced in calendars advertising cigars which proved to be massively successful. A lot brighter than many of his other paintings and setting a more casual mood of friends playing poker, it depicts a dog in the foreground seen secretly slipping an ace to his partner, while his competitors give side-glances around the table. While the original has never been up for sale, it's thought to be worth millions of dollars.
Other works from the series are A Bold Bluff, Station and Four Aces, Poker Sympathy, Post Mortem, Sitting up with a Sick Friend, Stranger in Camp, Waterloo, A Bachelor's Dog, Ten Miles to a Garage, Breach of Promise Suit, New Year's Eve in Dogville, One to Tie Two to Win, The Reunion and Riding the Goat. Designed to appeal to as many calendar-buyers as possible, all of these works are characterized by a gentle sense of humor. Humanizing animals, Coolidge hit upon a reliable kitsch formula.
A Bold Bluff and Waterloo, both from 1903, together form a brief, yet dramatic narrative. The first depicts Saint Bernard betting on a pair of deuces, leaving his opponents to decide whether or not he’s bluffing, while in the other, the other dogs snarl at the Saint Bernard’s hand as he rakes in the large pot. These two works were auctioned together in the Doyle New York’s Dogs in Art Auction. Although expecting to fetch between $30,000 and $50,000, an anonymous bidder ultimately paid a staggering $590,400 for both, setting a record for the sale of Coolidge works.
Even though C.M. Coolidge remains largely unknown and was once dubbed “The most famous American artist you’ve never heard of,” his paintings are immediately recognizable to people of all ages and backgrounds. The auction catalog excerpted a 1973 article from American Heritage states:
Coolidge’s poker-faced style is still engaging today … His details of expression, clothing, and furniture are precise. Uncannily, the earnest animals resemble people we all know.
However, these paintings are regarded most often as kitsch in the art world. Martin Harris from Poker News once explained that "for some, the paintings represent the epitome of kitsch or lowbrow culture, a poor-taste parody of 'genuine' art." Yet, in the 2004 book Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore that Shaped Modern America, Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger proposed that Dogs Playing Poker was a satirical series intended to mock the upper class in their excesses and attitudes.
In Philadelphia, where Coolidge was raised, there is a framed print of one of his works from his private collection, hanging within the one-room museum at the back of the local library. It was gifted to the town in 1991 by his then 80-year-old daughter, Gertrude Marcella.
Ever since it was created, the works appeared in a range of films, TV shows, cartoons, songs, plays, and artworks, including the Snoop Dogg's 1993 music video for What Is My Name? Every once in a while, the works are mentioned by a fictional character. Brown & Bigelow still exist today and continue to sell Coolidge prints online.
Featured image: Cassius Marcellus Coolidge - Poker Game, 1894. All images Creative Commons.