Dogs Playing Poker – Original Story Behind Famous Paintings
Last Updated: December 31, 2022
Even if you’re not a huge gambling fan, you’ve likely seen the intriguing painting of a group of dogs sitting around a felt table, playing poker.
This famous series of dog paintings made by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge has been around since the 19th century. It has left its paw prints all over the entertainment world.
Still, the name Coolidge is not one that many people in the art world recognize. This is why he’s often dubbed “the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of.” His work, although distinct and often nuanced, was never considered art, per se.
So, what’s the story about Dogs Playing Poker? When did Coolidge’s work become so popular, and why is he not appreciated as an artist? Let’s dive into the story behind Dogs Playing Poker and find out more about Coolidge and his art.
Dogs Playing Poker – The Original and Subsequent Series
As we’ve mentioned before, Dogs Playing Poker is not just one painting. It’s a series of paintings that fall under the collection.
More precisely, it includes sixteen paintings that Cassius Marcellus Coolidge painted for an advertising firm, plus two separate paintings, making up a total collection of eighteen pieces.
The 1894 painting, called Poker Game, is the first and most famous painting in the series. This painting is often considered synonymous with the Dogs Playing Poker name and is the most recognizable of the eighteen paintings.
It’s unclear where Coolidge Got the idea to combine dogs as subjects and feature them with anthropomorphized traits, playing a favorite pastime of many ordinary people.
Many classic and modern artists have depicted such scenarios, but with humans instead of animals.
And, while the themes of poker, camaraderie, and cheating were featured in paintings many times before Coolidge’s work, the introduction of dogs as players is unlike anything else seen up to that point.
But, this painting, and all subsequent ones, created a niche that still remains prevalent almost 130 years later. The Poker Game painting helped Coolidge gain some recognition and got him a project with Brown & Bigelow, an advertising firm that sold calendars.
Dogs Playing Poker Series
From 1903 to the mid-1910s, Coolidge created a series of sixteen calendar paintings for advertising purposes.
Additionally, the 18th painting in the series was painted in 1910. It’s called Looks Like Four of a Kind. It was done independently from the sixteen paintings commissioned by Brown & Bigelow, but is still a part of the overall Dogs Playing Poker series.
Instead, they feature dogs in various humorous predicaments. So, in order to cover the remainder of the paintings that make up the total collection more in-depth, here are all of the sixteen paintings in the Brown & Bigelow series:
- A Bachelor’s Dog
- A Bold Bluff
- Breach of Promise Suit
- A Friend in Need
- His Station and Four Aces
- New Year’s Eve in Dogville
- One to Tie Two to Win
- Pinched with Four Aces
- Poker Sympathy
- Post Mortem
- The Reunion
- Riding the Goat
- Sitting Up with a Sick Friend
- Stranger in Camp
- Ten Miles to a Garage
- A Waterloo
Coolidge created most of these calendar paintings in 1903. Moreover, the majority of them stick to the theme of dogs playing card games, a motif that art critics believe he invented. That said, seven paintings don’t feature any poker themes.
Image courtesy of dogsplayingpoker.org
For example, the painting Riding the Goat features a masonic initiation, while A Breach of Promise Suit is set in a courtroom where one dog is testifying in front of others.
There’s no apparent advertising reason why these specific themes are included in the collection, as Coolidge had great freedom when designing for Brown & Bigelow.
A Friend In Need – A Prime Coolidge Example
If we were to single out any of Coolidge’s sixteen paintings for Brown & Bigelow, it would certainly be A Friend in Need. Painted in 1903, this is the most famous and most reproduced Coolidge painting after the 1894 Poker Game painting.
So, what makes A Friend in Need such a special painting? The composition of the picture follows a style similar to what you’ll find in other Coolidge paintings. It includes seven dogs sitting around a poker table.
Image courtesy of dogsplayingpoker.org
The painting captures a specific moment in the game where one Bulldog hands an ace to another Bulldog under the table. The other dogs are a bit suspicious, and the receiving dog still hasn’t accepted the card. This leaves it open to interpretation as to what will happen.
One of the main reasons why A Friend in Need has become the most famous of the sixteen in the series is that it’s arguably the most relatable one in the collection.
It shows a leisurely poker game between friends. It’s simultaneously a serious and humorous piece that can be rendered on many levels.
Dogs Playing Pool – A Similar But Less Successful Attempt
In addition to the famous Dogs Playing Poker series, Coolidge also tried his skills at painting anthropomorphic dogs playing a game of pool.
While not nearly as popular as his series of poker paintings, it’s considered a precursor to all other pop culture paintings of dogs playing poker.
This painting was created in 1909. Coolidge named it Kelly Pool, after the Kelly pool variation, which was a widespread game at the time.
It depicts six dogs playing pool, one preparing to hit the ball and the other five closely observing and cheering him on.
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge – More About the Painter
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge was born in 1844 in Antwerp, New York. He spent most of his early years in Philadelphia, New York.
Growing up in a family of farmers, Coolidge didn’t have access to much formal training as an artist. He picked up most of his skills as he progressed through his career.
Coolidge left the family farm while still a teenager and explored many very different professions before becoming a painter. He first worked as a sign painter and pharmacist.
In the 1870s, he founded a bank and a newspaper. He also worked as a caricaturist for a local newspaper.
Coolidge started painting dogs in comical human situations fairly early on in his career as a painter. However, he didn’t achieve popularity until he was well into his 50s.
Even then, Coolidge wasn’t known by his real name. This was because he often spelled his name as Kash Coolidge, based on a humorous nickname he got from his family members.
Besides achieving popularity with his pictures of anthropomorphic dogs, Coolidge also created the popular concept of comic foregrounds. These are life-sized caricatures in which people would place their heads and take a novelty photograph.
The Popularity of Dogs Playing Poker in Pop Culture
As it happens with most paintings that achieve global recognition, the Dogs Playing Poker painting has also been featured in a number of shows, gambling movies, and even music videos.
It has been included in dozens of sitcoms over the years, most notably Cheers, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and many others.
Image courtesy of dogsplayingpoker.org
Often, it’s depicted as a painting mostly appreciated by blue-collar workers and snarked at by more sophisticated art enjoyers.
This representation in pop culture has led to the widespread opinion that the Dogs Playing Poker picture isn’t considered art but novelty artwork.
So, while these paintings are very popular in the gambling, art, and entertainment world, they are generally described as kitsch.
Other Iconic Gambling Paintings
Dogs Playing Poker is perhaps the most famous series of paintings in the gambling world. That said, there are many other noteworthy pieces that gambling enthusiasts should know of.
A few of them were even done by some of the greatest painters of all time. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few other famous gambling paintings:
The Cardsharps – Caravaggio
Starting with the oldest of the paintings we’ll talk about, The Cardsharps, was painted by the Baroque artist Caravaggio.
It’s estimated that this painting was created in 1594 and represents one of Caravaggio’s most important works.
Image courtesy of wikipedia.com
The painting shows a scene of an unsuspecting young noble and two cardsharps. The older cardsharp is looking at the noble’s cards, while the younger cardsharp has extra cards hidden behind his back.
The younger boy also has a dagger by his side, ready to act if things get out of control. This realistic painting demonstrates the brutal nature of street life, but with beautiful details and very theatrical composition.
The Card Sharp with the Ace of Diamonds – Georges de La Tour
Painted approximately between 1636 and 1638, this Georges de La Tour painting has a premise similar to Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps.
It features a card game in which a young and unsuspecting player is getting hustled by other players at the table.
It is believed that this painting was heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s work. However, it is more complex in terms of the little details. Apart from this original painting, there’s also a second version called The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs.
At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo – Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch is undoubtedly the greatest Norwegian painter of all time. Some of his most famous works include Madonna, The Sick Child, and The Scream. The latter is especially revered in art society.
But, in the context of this page, his painting At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo remains one of the most famous gambling paintings. This painting was inspired by his frequent visits to the casino.
Image courtesy of Google Arts & Culture
His simple technique of displaying figures, many of which are in despair and distress, showcases the unfortunate reality of what a roulette and gambling obsession can bring.
What’s the Price of the Original Dogs Playing Poker Painting?
Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker is a recognizable piece. Many people, especially in the US, keep copies of this painting in their homes and gambling rooms.
That said, as Coolidge’s work isn’t considered art in the usual sense of the word, how much do his paintings cost?
More specifically, if you wanted to get the most popular Dogs Playing Poker original version, the 1894 Poker Game painting, how much would it set you back?
To begin with, even though Coolidge’s work isn’t valued as Caravaggio’s or Munch’s, his paintings still costs a pretty penny.
The 1894 painting was sold in 2015 for $658,000. This still remains the highest price paid for any Coolidge painting. A decade earlier, the paintings A Bold Bluff and Waterloo were sold as a pair at an auction, going for $590,400.
In total, these three paintings are by far the most expensive ones, as the previous top price for one of Coolidge’s paintings was $74,000.
So, with all of that in mind, if you want a painting of a dog playing poker painted by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge in your gambling den, you can expect to pay quite a bit of money to obtain one of the sixteen originals.
That said, paying anywhere near even the lowest listed amount is too much for most gambling enthusiasts looking to decorate their poker rooms. So, if you still want a nicely painted picture of gambling dogs but are buying on a budget, a good option is to go to a gallery or online gallery and get a replica.
You can find many excellent replicas of Coolidge’s work that cost around a few hundred dollars or slightly more. That way, you can get a real oil painting that is nearly identical to the original. The biggest difference is that you won’t have to pay an exuberant amount of money.
The same goes if you’re interested in getting any other painting we’ve mentioned above. Moreover, original paintings from more famous artists like Munch and Caravaggio often cost millions of dollars.
A Legacy Worth Remembering
Despite the fact that many art critics consider Coolidge’s work lowbrow, the truth is that his work strikes a chord among regular people. His Dogs Playing Poker paintings are relatable, amusing, and nice to look at.
They deservedly present an inseparable part of pop culture. After all, the purpose of art is to entertain while leaving a lot up to interpretation. Coolidge’s pieces achieve this without a flaw!