We’ve all seen the painting of the dogs playing poker, but who painted it and what does it mean?
To answer the first question, the famous American artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge is the guy who immortalised the poker playing dogs in this world famous painting.
Actually, it wasn’t one single painting. He created nine paintings of dogs playing poker. At the time Coolidge was working with the advertising firm Brown & Bigelow, a producer of advertising calendars.
From the mid-1900s to the mid-1910s, Coolidge created a series of sixteen dog paintings for them, all of which featured anthropomorphic dogs. By this time he had already painted two others. And of those eighteen paintings, came nine of the dogs playing poker.
Two Most Famous Dogs Playing Poker Paintings
From all of Coolidge’s paintings, two stand out as being the most famous in pop culture.
The first is called Poker Game. It is an oil on canvas from 1884 and features a poker table lit by a single heavy-shaded light. Around the table sit four large dogs sipping whiskey, one smoke pipe, another a cigar.
Chips and cards litter the table as the smiling a Saint Bernard’s hand slides across to gather his winnings. This is the crazy canine world of Cassius Coolidge.
It was his first poker dog painting and in 2015 it went to auction and sold for $658,000.
His second very famous painting is called A Friend In Need. This is the one most commonly seen in reproduction.
It was painted in 1903 and features seven dogs sitting around a poker table. The painting derives its name from the bulldog handing an ace under the table to his friend. With that additional ace, the dog will have four aces and likely win the game.
The Popularity of Coolidge’s Paintings
When Cassius Marcellus Coolidge discovered that he had a natural aptitude for cartooning in his early twenties, he created his series of images. Little did he know that they would go on to become American classics with thousands of copies hung in pool rooms, bars, and dens all over the world.
Coolridge’s work is imitated and spoofed to this day. There are at least 37 references to Coolidge’s poker dogs in TV and movies including a Snoop Dogg music video, The Simpsons, Law & Order and even Ray Donovan.
Huge in popular culture, they are accessible to everyman because they are fun. Yes, they are genuine art, but you don’t have to be an expert in the contemporary art world to understand them or get real pleasure from them.
That is why so many of the Dogs Playing Poker series have endured to this day. In fact, prior to 2006, the most a Coolidge painting sold for at auction was $74,000. However, two of his paintings, A Bold Bluff and Waterloo, went on the art auction block at Doyle New York.
Expected to fetch between $30,000 and $50,000, the pair sold for $590,400. And of course, as mentioned above, in 2015 Poker Game sold for $658,000.
The Coolridge Imitators
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 too painted a series of pictures of dogs. Unlike Coolidge, he stayed from poker games.
Instead, his dogs were playing pool and one of these paintings, The Hustler, was the best-selling print of the 1950s, outselling even Marilyn Monroe.
But not everybody was so fond of the dogs playing poker series. In the art world, his paintings were often subjected to ridicule. So much so that on April 1, 2002, William Hennessey, the director of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia, released a press release claiming he was trying to acquire the series of oil-on-canvas paintings universally known as Dogs Playing Poker.
The press release turned out to be a prank—apparently, the idea of hanging such things in a museum was an art historian’s idea of a hilarious joke. At least Hennessey had the good grace to later admit that he personally quite liked the series.
Commercial Success For Dogs Playing Poker
While today we all love looking at the paintings and dog lovers everywhere have all sorts of merchandise with the memorable friends playing poker together, originally, there was a commercial reason for them to be created.
By 1920, advertising revenue in the US had grown from 200 million dollars to 3 billion a year and advertising companies wanted their brands to stand out.
They needed artists who could produce drawings or adverts that were quirky enough to turn consumer heads. With that in mind, Coolidge started his dogs playing poker series to advertise cigars and sell tobacco.
While most of us instantly recognise this particular set of paintings, Coolidge did have other works. Although they all involved dogs, he painted them on train journeys, reading newspapers, playing football and even ballroom dancing.
Is Dogs Playing Poker Kitsch?
The term ‘Kitsch’ refers to art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste. While Coolidge’s work may have been scorned by those in the art world at the time and in later years, art is subjective.
We don’t all like the same things so if dogs playing poker does it for you then that’s all that matters. It’s not just a poker painting, it’s a reflection of America at the time and if Coolidge had painted grown men around a poker table it wouldn’t have had the same impact.
What he did was creative and different. There was a sense of humanity in his works especially with the likes of Bold Bluff, A Friend In Need or Sitting Up With A Sick Friend – where the dogs get foiled playing a sneaky poker game.
Technically, maybe they are kitsch. Does that really matter if you like them?
What Kind Of Dogs Are In Dogs Playing Poker?
There is no definitive answer to that question as some of the dogs have their backs turned to the viewer in some of the paintings.
Best guesses suggest that amount the series of paintings you can find a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, an English Bulldog, a Boxer, a Saint Bernard, maybe a Great Dane, Mastiff, Cane Corso, a Bloodhound – and a Rough Collie all playing a poker game of some sort.
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.
Now we know we have Cassius Marcellus Coolidge to thank or blame for that.
You can download the Dogs Playing Poker Wallpaper for free Here.
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