It's not well known, but Cassius Marcellus Coolidge's picture of Dogs Playing Poker really relates to 18 other paintings! The series comprises the artist's original Poker Game (1894) picture, as well as 16 more oil paintings commissioned by Brown & Bigelow to promote cigars in 1903, and further work from 1910.
It's not well known, but Cassius Marcellus Coolidge's picture of Dogs Playing Poker really relates to 18 other paintings! The series comprises the artist's original Poker Game (1894) picture, as well as 16 more oil paintings commissioned by Brown & Bigelow to promote cigars in 1903, and further work from 1910. Only eleven of the eighteen paintings show poker-faced puppies playing cards at a table, despite the fact that they all feature hilarious, humanized canines.
A Friend in Need (1903) is without a doubt one of the most well-known (and therefore identifiable) paintings of all time. Coolidge's paintings, however, were never deemed real "art" by critics, unlike other famous works like Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, and Van Gogh's Starry Night. Coolidge's oil-on-canvas paintings, on the other hand, caused outrage when they were initially published.
On April Fools' Day in 2002, the art historian and director of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia, William Hennessey, went so far as to publicly ridicule the series by issuing a news release saying he was seeking to purchase the series for the museum's collection. "I've always loved them," Hennessey later confessed, and he's not alone.
Coolidge's poker dogs have become famous for their expressive expressions, cigarette pipes, and whiskey glasses. So famous are they that they've been mentioned in popular TV programs like Cheers, Parks and Recreation, and The Simpsons, and have been imitated and parodied numerous times, as well as being popular kitsch themes for t-shirts, coffee mugs, and home décor. In addition, on November 18, 2015, Sotheby's New York auctioned Coolidge's first painting, Poker Game (1894), for $658,000.
William Hennessey, director of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia, issued a press statement on April 1, 2002, stating that he was attempting to purchase the "Dogs Playing Poker" series of oil-on-canvas paintings (1903-1910). The press release was a hoax - apparently, displaying such items in a museum was an art historian's notion of a funny joke.
Hennessey, on the other hand, acknowledged that he had always enjoyed the show. He isn't the only one who thinks this way. Cassius Marcellus Coolidge's "Dogs Playing Poker" paintings are among the pantheon of works of art—David, Michelangelo's Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, Van Gogh's Starry Night, and Hopper's Nighthawks—that are instantly recognizable to people of all ages and backgrounds, even those who don't readily admit to enjoying art.
It's also far from perfect, at least according to general agreement. Unlike Mona Lisa, which has been kitschified into t-shirts, memes, and magnets, Coolidge's canine paintings were always kitsch, a hilarious sight joke, and nothing more or less. The (lowbrow) bartender gushes that he sees something new every time he looks at one of the paintings in an episode of the 1980s comedy Cheers; the statement is greeted with a knowing laugh by the live studio audience. Coolidge's series seems to be the aesthetic equivalent of a Big Mac and fries, the exact definition of a guilty pleasure.
So, tell me, how could a picture of a bunch of dogs playing poker outlive so many other "serious" works? Coolidge wasn't the first to paint anthropomorphized animals—they've always been good material for comedy—but he did create at least eight variants on the dog/poker subject, including A Friend in Need (1903), the most widely copied of the group.
However, being a commercial artist at a period when American companies were starting to spend significantly on advertising was pure serendipity for him. The first modern advertising agency, N.W. Ayer & Son opened its doors in 1869, the same year Coolidge turned 25; between 1880 and 1920, total advertising expenditures by American businesses increased from $200 million to $3 billion. Artists, whose pictures had to be adorable, quirky, or otherwise distinctive enough to attract people's attention, were at the center of this movement.
Coolidge worked in a variety of professions throughout his twenties and thirties, which may have prepared him for a career as a commercial artist. He was born in the tiny upstate New York town of Philadelphia and came to Rochester in 1873, where he worked as a druggist, a street address painter, and a cartoonist. He wrote a comedic opera about mosquitoes at one time in his career.
Coolidge seems to have had an instinctive understanding of what made people laugh and what sorts of pictures they wanted to see, despite his lack of academic training as an artist. Many art historians credit him with creating "comic foregrounds," those plywood panels with a cut-out hole for the head that enable visitors to dress up as bodybuilders or mermaids. Coolidge's position in the kitsch canon would be assured even if he had never painted a single dog.
His ability to create strange pictures with a sense of humor resulted in his greatest work, the absurdist canine series, for which he is most known today. His early paintings of dogs playing poker, which date from the 1870s, were used to adorn cigar boxes and help tobacco firms stand out from their almost similar rivals. Coolidge's popularity wasn't guaranteed until 1903 when he signed a deal with the Minnesota-based advertising company Brown & Bigelow. Coolidge went on to paint sixteen dog paintings for the business, including A Friend in Need, which was constantly reprinted in tobacco calendars. The calendars were a huge hit, and Coolidge's artwork ended up in millions of households.
What was it about the "Dogs Playing Poker" series that drew so many fans? Coolidge's photographs are undoubtedly charming, and they aren't too serious. Most significantly, they're strange without being repulsive, which can be said of many commercial classics, from Mr. Clean to Dos Equis's Most Interesting Man in the World.
With this in mind, it's interesting to compare A Friend in Need to Sir Edwin Landseer's 1840 picture Laying Down the Law, which is often regarded as a forerunner to Coolidge's series. The two paintings seem almost similar on the surface: Both depict dogs gathering in a somber circle, behaving as if they were humans (card-players in Coolidge, lawyers in Landseer).
But Landseer's picture is meaner and more obviously sarcastic than A Friend in Need; legend has it that several of the dogs were based after real-life friends, including the English Lord Chancellor. The sense of humor in Coolidge's picture is much softer. After all, it was made to appeal to the widest possible range of calendar purchasers. Coolidge humanizes animals, while Landseer animalizes people. As a result, he discovered a tried-and-true kitsch formula that has worked for everyone from Walt Disney to William Wegman to the author of the YouTube video "Keyboard Cat."
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Dogs Playing Poker is more than just a humorous series; it also has a short but powerful story conveyed via two of the paintings. A Saint Bernard bets on a pair of deuces in A Bold Bluff (1903), allowing his opponents to figure out whether he's bluffing or not.
Other dogs growl at Saint Bernard's hand as he rakes in the big pot in Waterloo, which was finished the same year. The artworks were auctioned off at Doyle New York's Dogs in Art Auction. Predictions ranged from $30,000 to $50,000 for the pair of rare paintings, but an unknown bidder paid a whopping $590,400 for both, establishing a new record for Coolidge pieces.
The most popular of the bunch is Coolidge's A Friend in Need. The bulldog in the foreground is seen surreptitiously sliding an ace to his partner as his opponents offer side-glances around the table, thus the moniker. Perhaps the painting's amusement stems from its subtle, but humorous portrayal of deception directed at man's closest and most faithful companion. The original is believed to be worth millions of dollars, despite the fact that it has never been for sale.
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This series has spawned a slew of films, TV programs, cartoons, songs, plays, and artwork since its inception. Snoop Dogg's 1993 music video for "What Is My Name?" features numerous dogs playing poker. The Dogs Playing Poker series, on the other hand, is often referenced by a fictitious character or appears in the backdrop of a scene.
Sometimes, it influences the physical arrangement of a scene in a TV program or film, with characters playing dogs. Regardless, the Dogs Playing Poker series has survived the test of time and will continue to inspire future generations.
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The first dog paintings created by Coolidge were for tobacco boxes. The 59-year-old artist then went to work for Brown & Bigelow, a firm that specialized in "remembrance advertising." From then, he started producing works such as A Bold Bluff, Poker Sympathy, and Pinched With Four Aces, which were reprinted as posters, calendars, and prints, as well as promotional gifts.
A Friend in Need puts two bulldogs against five enormous hounds. Who could blame them if they used their toes to smuggle beneficial cards beneath the table? A Friend in Need is the most popular of the series, and it's also the one that gets called "Dogs Playing Poker" the most.
Coolidge already had a unique creative claim to fame: he is credited with inventing Comic Foregrounds, carnival attractions where visitors may pose with their heads atop a cartoon figure for a photo op. Coolidge was able to sell several of the original paintings for $2000 to $10,000 when Dogs Playing Poker became popular via the calendar and poster sales.
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