Dogs Playing Poker, by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, refers collectively to an 1894 painting, a 1903 series of sixteen oil paintings commissioned byBrown & Bigelow to advertise cigars, and a 1910 painting. All eighteen paintings in the overall series featureanthropomorphizeddogs, but the eleven in which dogs are seated around a card table have become well known in the United States as examples ofkitsch art in home decoration.
Critic Annette Ferrara has described Dogs Playing Poker as “indelibly burned into … the American collective-schlocksubconscious … through incessant reproduction on all manner of pop ephemera“.
The first painting, Coolidge’s 1894 Poker Game, realized $658,000 at a Sotheby’s New York sale on 18 November 2015.
Carla Davidson writes, “That eighteenth-century British curmudgeon Dr. Samuel Johnson once remarked, ‘I would rather see a portrait of a dog that I know than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world.’ A hundred years later an American who shared this sentiment, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844-1934), began painting the daily life of some very humanoid canines, an artistic subspecialty that was preceded by a string of careers. In the upstate New York town of Antwerp, Coolidge worked, almost simultaneously, as a druggist, painter of street signs and house numbers, and founder of the first newspaper and earliest bank all within the years between 1868 and 1872. It was after a trip to Europe in 1873 that he turned up in Rochester, New York, as the portraitist of dogs whose life-style mirrored the successful middle-class humans of his time. Coolidge’s first customers were cigar companies, who printed copies of his paintings for giveaways. His fortunes rose when he signed a contract with the printers Brown & Bigelow, who turned out hundreds of thousands of copies of his dog-genre subjects as advertising posters, calendars, and prints.
“Coolidge’s poker-faced style is still engaging today. His dogs fit with amazing ease into such human male phenomena as the all-night card game, the commuter train, and the ball park. His details of expression, clothing, and furniture are precise. Uncannily, the earnest animals resemble people we all know, causing distinctions of race, breed, and color to vanish and evoking the sentiment on an old Maryland gravestone: MAJOR Born a Dog Died a Gentleman”
Poker Game, oil on canvas, 1894
After leaving the family farm in the early 1860s, Coolidge had many careers. Between 1868 and 1872 he worked as a druggist and sign painter, founded a bank and a newspaper, then moved from Antwerp, New York, to Rochester, where he started painting dogs in human situations.
Coolidge began his art career in his twenties, one of his early jobs being the creation of cartoons for a local newspaper.
He is credited with creating “comic foregrounds,” novelty photographs which combined a portrait of the sitter with a caricatured body, produced by the sitter holding between two sticks a canvas on which Coolidge drew or painted the caricature. The final product was similar to the photographs produced at midways and carnivals when people place their heads into openings in life-size caricatures.
His Station and Four Aces by C. M. Coolidge, painted in 1903.