Without a speck of doubt, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, or C.M. Coolidge for short, best known work remains Dogs Playing Poker. Yet, there are many unknowns or rather – curious facts surrounding the series of paintings that have etched themselves in our collective memory.
For starters, perhaps very few people know that the popular name refers to a number of works, not just one. One was first commissioned works was in 1894, followed by sixteen oil paintings in 1903 and then another one arriving late in 1910.
Whatever the reason behind it, Dogs Playing Poker has become one of the series to stay with us for over 100 years now, and persists despite what the art world might have thought of C.M. Coolidge as an artist. Even more interestingly, though, Coolidge was a prolific painter outside his “many paintings of dogs,” that has earned him the title of the “best-known American painter you have never heard of.”
1. What is the Painting of the Dogs Playing Poker?
Collectively known as Dogs Playing Poker, the original work first appeared in 1894, but was then re-commissioned by Brown & Bigelow to advertise a cigars brand leading to sixteen additional paintings between 1903 and 1910, with an extra painting arriving that last year.
So, when people ask you what you think about Dogs Playing Poker, you ought to ask them which one precisely do they mean. There are quite a few of those works and a number of popular names associated with those names, including A Bold Bluff, Pinched With Four Aces, and Poker Sympathy. But hold on – not all paintings have to exclusively deal with poker.
2. Which is the Most Famous Dogs Playing Poker Painting?
Perhaps the work that ranks highest up in our collective memory is A Friend in Need which depicts a bunch of dogs seated around a table with one discreetly extending a paw to pass a generic card to its canine mate to the left. The painting is also most commonly mistaken for Dogs Playing Poker, which as we have established, is not entirely true.
3. Everyone’s a Critic or How the Art World Dismissed the Paintings
Stroking home with the working class, there seemed to be little recognition for Coolidge’s work among art critics. The paintings may have been painted a little too soon for his time, because even when Coolidge passed in 1934, his obituary briefly, and almost mockingly stated, that he was best known for having painted a bunch of dogs.
And it seemed that the art world was having a good laugh about it. The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia even went so far as to post an April Fool’s Day joke suggesting that the establishment wanted to add Coolidge’s collection of dog paintings.
Yet, Chrysler’s statement did later reveal that while the museum’s intention to procure the works was a jest, the fact that human-centered art was prevailing was in fact a position the institution was prepared to defend.
So, perhaps Coolidge’s ambitious shift towards canine paintings wasn’t all that misplaced after all. For all the ridicule, though, the majority of critics’ names have been long forgotten whereas Dogs Playing Poker work is still here over 100 years since it first appeared. That may incline you to ask, who is laughing now?
4. Not All Dogs Paintings in the Series Are about Poker
Completely defeating expectations, not all of the paintings actually depict dogs playing poker. Some form of artistic freedom is of course expected. And so, just nine out of the sixteen paintings are actually about poker, with the remainder depicting the canine friends in different situations.
Three specific paintings that stick with us today, including Higher Education where a bunch of pups participate in what appears to be collegiate football.
There is also New Year’s Eve in Dogsville putting a celebratory twist on the paintings and then Breach of Promise Suit, which depicts a Bulldog who promised a Boston Terrier to marry her but later reneged on that promise. The painting exploits a former law that held a suitor to his word once they had promised to marry a woman.
5. Does Dogs Playing Poker Cost Big Bucks?
Coolidge’s work definitely took a while to garner appreciation, although opinions about its actual worth remain as divided as ever. While he wasn’t honored during his own time or even posthumously, he began to draw praises and accolades – however qualified – in the 60s.
Originally, his work didn’t really fetch all that on the open market. In 1998, one of his works was sold for $74,000. Several years later in 2005, A Bold Bluff and Waterloo: Two went up on auction and they fetched the impressive $590,400. This is the highest amount to ever have been paid for Coolidge’s work.
6. The Two Highest Priced Paintings Share a Storyline
Waterloo and A Bold Bluff weren’t just some randomly paired off paintings. They shared the same plot with a St. Bernard as the protagonist of both. In the first painting, A Bold Bluff, we see our canine friend holding a weak hand that doesn’t seem to promise him much in the way of poker success.
Yet, in Waterloo, St. Bernard is boldly going where no dog has ventured before, throwing in a large pot and raising the stakes before the dismayed looks of fellow players.
7. Coolidge’s Own Wife and Daughter Were Fairly Unimpressed
For better or for worse, Coolidge was alone against the world. Not even his wife and daughter found the paintings much appealing. In an interview with the New York Times, Gertrude Coolidge said that she and her mother were more of cat lovers if anything.
Well, despite the feline inclinations of his family, Coolidge went on to paint his dogs facing the daily travails of playing poker and not always having the best card to make things work.
8. The Works Were Dismissed Because of their Commercial Twist
After years of delving into the work of Coolidge, most contemporary artists and critics agree that the main objection against Dogs Playing Poker is the fact they were originally designed to appeal to many people and be immediately understood.
It didn’t matter what a critic would think once it was evident that the painting had a commercial interest in its very heart. The work was immediately dismissed as too superficial, perhaps because it could be easily understood by many.
For example, a similar work appeared before his. Sir Edwin Landseer, an English painter, also painted dogs, but the setting was darker and therefore taken more seriously. Coolidge, conversely, applied a sense of humor to his work, leading many to misinterpret his artistic elan as something flippant to begin with.
9. The Topics Weren’t’ Picked at Random
Even though Coolidge’s work was to specifically address a brand of cigars, his own genius was evident in the work. Picking dogs playing poker was great as, similar to what his daughter and wife thought, cats weren’t very likely to be smoking cigars or playing poker.
Advertising the brand aside, Coolidge also did a great work of addressing deceit that is usually associated with card games, a topic that continues to haunt us to date with new and striking cases of professional players coloring around the lines for their own self-ingratiating purposes.
Coolidge’s paintings capture one’s proclivity for gaining the upper-hand without necessarily having the merits to deserve it in the first place. But far more importantly, the paintings were designed to mock the upper class and their indulgence in excessiveness – the pursue of happiness beyond the realization that it should come from within, and not be predicated on exterior factors.
10. Honored in Philadelphia After All
Despite the fairly small recognition Coolidge got during his own time, Gertrude Marcella Coolidge, his daughter, travelled to her father’s home city and donated a print from his work to the town, which was then displayed in a one-room display. It may seem almost tragic that Coolidge never got much attention while he was alive – or perhaps after that – but his work continues to live on. Yet, in a society that is so heavily packed with gifted artists, Coolidge may be forgotten in future – time will show.