What Is the Story Behind the Famous Dogs Playing Poker Painting?

by Cristian I

Did you know that Cassius Marcellus Coolidge created an 18-painting set that involves dogs playing poker instead of a single portrait?

Dogs Playing Poker Picture?

Most people think about the original painting that was released in 1894 called “Poker Game.” Brown and Bigelow commissioned another 16 portraits in the oil painting series to help advertise their cigars, and then an additional illustration was ordered in 1910.

All of the paintings feature humanized dogs, but only 11 of them actually show them playing cards around a poker table.

If you don’t think about the original painting, you’re probably familiar with the one called “A Friend in Need.” It shows one dog pacing an Ace of Clubs to his neighbor.

Dogs Playing Poker Painting
” A Friend in Need. ” – Dogs Playing Poker Painting by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

Coolidge’s Work Was Never Deemed to Be “Art”

Although the Dogs Playing Poker series might be iconic today, the art world thought differently when these paintings were released in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When they were initially published, people mocked them.

The paintings were considered marketing materials at the time, so there is a place for criticism in that regard.

Times have certainly changed from Coolidge’s perspective. Those poker dogs have become popular because of their expressive faces, whiskey glasses, and pipe-smoking habits. The work has become part of our modern culture to the point where several TV shows and movies reference the paintings.

Although they might get parodied or laughed at by some critics, the motif has become one of today’s most popular artistic ventures. The original painting from 1894 even sold at auction for $658,000 at Sotheby’s in 2015.

If you don’t want to pay that much for a painting, you can find the images on coffee mugs, t-shirts, or reproductions meant to use for home décor.

Dogs Playing Poker by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge
Dogs Playing Poker by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

More About Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

When Coolidge was painting at the height of his career, he was considered an unknown commodity. Even today, he is arguably the most famous American painter that you don’t really know.

He was born in 1844. With no formal art training, he began to dabble with humorous illustrations and surreal environments. By 1864, he was already selling his works to different magazines for publishing.

Coolidge tried many different careers over the years to see what could stick for him. He was a banker, a publisher, a sign painter, and even a pharmacist. It didn’t take him long to realize that his true passion was for artistic endeavors, so you created a career as a children’s book illustrator.

It is through that work that Coolidge came up with the idea of creating foregrounds. If you’ve ever stuck your head through a cartoon mural at the count fair for a fun photo opportunity, you’ve gotten a glimpse of this artist’s work in action.

Dogs Playing Poker Picture
Dogs Playing Poker Picture

How Did Coolidge Get the Inspiration for His Work?

Although it is unknown how Coolidge became inspired to create the Dogs Playing Poker series, there do seem to be some influences within the work from past artists. Cezanne, Caravaggio, and de La Tour all created card game scenes with human subjects that seem to follow the same pattern.

Some critics also compare Coolidge’s work to a painting by Sir Edwin Landseer called “Laying Down the Law.” It features dogs gathered around to listen to a reading.

It is possible that he felt inspired by both artists while wanting to engage his whimsical style.

The first painting took almost ten years to generate enough momentum for Brown and Bigelow to commission Coolidge to create more of them. When you see the entire 16-portraits, you can find a road trip, a football game, and even a jester performing with the paintings to help advertise cigars.

They were used in promotional posters, prints, and calendars, with the latter option proving to be the most popular. That is when the American public got to know the artist a lot better.

Coolidge even created storylines within his paintings. In 1903, he made “A Bold Bluff,” where a Saint Bernard bets on a pair of ducks (deuces).  His opponents are left to wonder if calling him is the right move.

In the follow-up from the same year called “A Waterloo,” you can see the St. Bernard raking in a huge pot. An anonymous bidder paid $590,400 for both paintings when they went up for auction, setting a new standard at the time for Coolidge’s work.

The original for “A Friend in Need” is thought to be worth several million dollars because of its popularity. It has never gone up for sale.

A Waterloo
A Waterloo
Dogs Playing Poker
Dogs Playing Poker
Dogs Playing Poker
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge - Poker Sympathy
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge – Poker Sympathy

 

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