Dogs Playing Poker is a famous series of artworks, yet many people know nothing of the artist responsible for the paintings. Born this month 177 years ago, in New York State, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge is the creator of the iconic images. In this article, we’ll learn more about the man behind the famous pictures and reimagine his work in a COVID-19 era.
Coolidge, known as “Kash” to family and friends, was born in Antwerp, New York on September 18th, 1884. He grew up on a farm owned by his Quaker family and had very little formal training in how to be an artist. During his early 20s, he sold pharmaceuticals and topped up his income by working as a sign painter. He would later go on to set up a newspaper and a bank.
It wasn’t until much later in life, when Kash moved to Rochester, that he began to paint his most famous works. The idea of placing dogs into human situations is inherently funny and it’s clear that Coolidge had a sense of humor. He is credited with the invention of “comic foregrounds”, an idea which he actually patented. The subject would hold a blank canvas beneath their face, while Coolidge painted a comedic caricature of a body below. He would then photograph the sitter in this humorous pose, to create an amusing piece of novelty artwork.
Something a lot of people don’t realize about Dogs Playing Poker is that it’s actually a series of 18 different Coolidge paintings. Not all of them depict an actual card game, though eight of the paintings show the eponymous dogs in the act of gambling. One work focuses on the aftermath of an evening of cards (Post Mortem). Others display the subjects engaging in other activities, such as watching baseball (One to Tie, Two to Win).
A Bachelor’s Dog features a single character seated at the table, reading what appears to be a newspaper. He stares at the viewer, cigar in mouth, a half-finished beer on the table. Kelly Pool is one of the more famous images, often found reproduced in bars around the world. This work sees six of the dogs, several of them resplendent in a fine array of headgear, huddled around a pool table. It’s as if man’s best friend is nothing more than a degenerate gambler, spending most of the time drinking and hustling.
And we do mean hustling. One of the best-known paintings is A Friend in Need, which sees a couple of bulldogs up against much bigger hounds. The two chums are closest to the viewer, and the rightmost of the pair can clearly be seen cheating. He’s slipping an Ace under the table to help out his mate.
One wonders how Coolidge would have approached the topic had he been around today. What would he have made of the COVID-19 situation? Would the dogs be arguing about the wearing of face masks at the table? Maybe the mutts would be engaged in a Zoom video call? Locked down in their respective kennels due to the pandemic, making use of an online poker platform to host their game.
The other images in the series would be equally bizarre. There would be no crowd in the baseball stadium, though perhaps our furry friends might be playing a socially distanced game of their own. Perhaps A Bachelor’s Dog would be reading an internet newspaper, receiving a takeout delivery at home.
It’s not impossible to imagine a few of the canine characters huddled around a computer, perusing an online casino comparison site. They might be discussing which gambling games to play and making sure that they can load their online wagering accounts with their preferred digital payment methods. Possibly they would be working out which site to register with, identifying the best signup bonuses that have been made easy by the way thanks to comparison sites, so players can now just focus on reading guides, get tips, and win.
Thankfully, these wonderful images were created in an era before COVID-19. Perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree. But we like to think that their quirky creator would have had a lot of fun remaking them, had he been with us today.