Poker Playing Dogs

Cassius Coolidge is the Artist who immortalised the Poker Playing Dogs in this world famous paintings.

Imagine a poker table lit by a single heavy-shaded light. Around the table sit 5 large dogs sipping bourbon, a couple smoke pipes, another a cigar. Chips and cards litter the table as the smiling winner gathers his winnings up in his paws. This is his Waterloo and this is the crazy canine world of Cassius Coolridge.

When Cassius Marcellus Coolidge discovered that he had a natural aptitude for cartooning in his early twenties, he created a series of images that went on to become American working-class classics with thousands of copies going on to be hung in pool rooms, bars, and dens all over the world.

‘Cash’ to his poker playing friends and ‘Rash’ to his family, Coolidge started out painting shop signs and creating cartoons for his local newspaper. But as a young man of ambition, he soon hit upon a new slapstick, cartoon-style idea when he invented the Comic Foreground back in the mid-1800s. These life-size cut-outs – which we all know so well – led to millions of holidaymakers sticking their heads through life-size cartoon scenes at fairs and piers, just so that they could take home a funny photograph of themselves with the body of a chicken, ape, or bathing beauty.

It isn’t clear just how much money Coolidge made from this inspired enterprise, but it did enhance his reputation as a humorous artist; and when he hit upon yet another idea he really was onto a winner. Coolidge’s idea was to start to anthropomorphise dogs in his paintings and – despite friends thinking that he was barking up the wrong tree – news of his dog-depicting humour spread like wildfire. His tough-looking poker-playing dogs are the most famous, but he also painted dogs on train journeys, reading newspapers, testifying in court and even playing baseball. Coolidge's first customers were cigar companies that printed copies of the paintings for giveaways, but in 1903 Coolidge signed a contract with Brown & Bigelow to turn out hundreds of thousands of copies of his dog paintings for advertising posters, calendars, and prints.

Of course, the artistic community scorned his work even though the fantastic nature of his imagery and absurd juxtapositions predated Surrealism by nearly 50 years. In artistic terms Coolidge certainly had a good eye, his use of light is reminiscent of Rembrandt and the Dutch masters and he combines this with a contemporary social commentary that was way ahead of its time. In fact, if you study his work closely, some of the compositions in the series seem to be modelled on paintings of human card-players by Caravaggio, Georges de La Tour, and Paul Cézanne. But let’s not make a dogs-dinner of it – they were admired and bought by the ‘common-man’ simply because they were fun.

Despite the dogmatic criticism, his work was so popular that prints sold like doggy hot-cakes and his poker playing dogs, which appear in 9 of the series of 16 paintings, have become much sought after. So sought after that when 2 of his best-known original paintings (Bold Bluff and Waterloo) were auctioned back in 2005 they went for an incredible $590,400 instead of the – not to be sniffed at – $80,000 they were expected to fetch – not bad for a picture of four dogs playing poker.

Of course Coolidge wasn’t alone in anthropomorphising and depicting animals in human situations. In England, Louis William Wain was busy portraying sporting cats who played cards, fished, putted on the golf course, played football and enjoyed a host of other pastimes. Wain had travelled to New York in 1907 to draw comic strips for Hearst newspapers (Cats About Town and Grimalkin) and it was probably whilst he was in New York that he became aware of Coolidge’s work.

In later life Wain was committed to an asylum suffering from Schizophrenia which was believed to have been brought on by him contracting toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection that can be passed from cats. He continued to paint cats though, each cat becoming more abstracted than the last; until his cats became mere patterns of catlike colour. His work, like Coolridge’s, is much sought after today, with Tracy Emin an avid collector of his ever more crazed felines.

Not to be outdone, another cat-crazy Englishman – taxidermist, Walter Potter – was busy stuffing real animals and creating anthropomorphic dioramas which included a group of squirrels playing cards. His slightly spooky scenes were very popular at the time, and the British public flocked to see ‘Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities’ – where guinea pigs played cricket and kittens hit tiny balls through wire croquet hoops. The entire collection was auctioned in 2003, where a pre-auction, above finishing bid, offer of £1m by Damien Hirst was rejected by the auctioneers who were later sued for not accepting it.

Coolridge’s work is imitated and spoofed to this day, with TV cartoon dogs, gods, and even X-Men’s Wolverine pictured around his distinctive card table. But perhaps the greatest imitator of Coolidge’s work was fellow American, Arthur Sarnoff. Sarnoff was a successful commercial artist whose work, like Coolidge’s, was whimsical and engaging, relying heavily upon well-loved themes of Americana and comic-strip humour. Alongside his advertising commercial work and slightly naughty female paintings, he painted a series of pictures of dogs playing pool and one of these paintings, “The Hustler”, was the best-selling print of the 1950s, outselling even Marilyn Monroe.

Love them or hate them, Coolidge’s pioneering images of poker playing dogs have had a lasting legacy. Today the internet is awash with puppies and kittens posed and photo-shopped into almost every human mannerism and situation – and we have ‘Cash’ ‘Rash’ Cooleridge to thank or blame for that.

You can download the Dogs Playing Poker Wallpaper for free Here.

They're Dogs and They're Playing Poker

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