March 27, 2008

Dogs Playing Poker Painting

Stupid Question ™
May 25, 2000
By John Ruch
© 2000

Q: What is the origin of that painting of dogs playing poker?

A: There are actually several paintings on this theme, all made by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge.

Known to friends as “Cash,” he was born on an Antwerp, New York farm in 1844. From 1868 to 1872 he worked in his hometown as a druggist and sign painter, while also founding a newspaper and a bank.

After an 1873 trip to Europe, he returned first to Rochester, then to Manhattan, and began painting commercially.

His most successful oil paintings showed very human-like dogs, clutching cigars and wearing hats, engaged in various boy’s-club activities—especially playing poker in Victorian-parlor surroundings.

At first he sold the pictures to cigar companies for giveaway posters. Coolidge researcher Moira Harris says he also did work for breweries.

But his popularity was ensured when he contracted around 1903 with St. Paul, Minnesota-based Brown & Bigelow, a licensing company that put his work on posters, prints and calendars.

Brown & Bigelow found that Coolidge’s dogs “mirrored the successful middle-class humans of his time.” Cash lived up to his name by making up to $10,000 a painting.

Some of his favorites include “A Friend in Need,” showing a bulldog passing an ace in its toes to a poker-playing pal, and “Waterloo,” showing a poker-faced Saint Bernard bankrupting his canine compatriots.

“Coolidge dog scenes” (as they’re called in the trade) are sometimes known as “Four Dogs Playing Poker”—but he never titled a work that, and none of his paintings showed four dogs. The title probably comes from his cheap imitators in Mexico, who have pirated his paintings onto black velvet.

Before his death on Staten Island in 1934, Coolidge reputedly invented (and definitely sold) “Comic Foregrounds”—those wooden cutouts you stick your face in for funny photos at carnivals—and dabbled in bad writing, including a comic opera based on a mosquito epidemic.

Since then, his dog paintings have enjoyed minor celebrity. Nine originals have gone to auction in recent years, fetching up to $16,000. And a character on the TV series “Family Law” is obsessed with Coolidge dog scenes.

And why was Cash himself dog-obsessed? “We never knew,” Cash’s daughter Marcella told me. “We never owned a dog”—though he apparently did like them.

Moira Harris sees satire in the paintings.

“His people [in paintings] kind of looked like dogs, too,” she said, adding that humanized animals were a popular genre in 19th century art.

Autobiography also seems a strong factor. In photos, Cash looks a lot like bulldog himself. A bachelor until age 65, he, like his dogs, invariably wore a hat and clutched a cigar.

Marcella Coolidge said that in any case, the paintings weren’t taken very seriously in the Coolidge household.

“I never liked them,” she said. And to Cash, it was just cash: “It was just commercial.”

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