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Behind The Iconic ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ Paintings - FAD Magazine

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Behind The Iconic ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ Paintings

A Friend in Need,” 1903 by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A Friend in Need 1903 C.M.Coolidge

When it comes to the world of art, poker isn’t just one of the many games available at betsafe.com/en/casino – it’s also the theme of an iconic collection of paintings. Dogs Playing Poker by the American artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge started life in 1894, when Coolidge painted the first image in the series, Poker Game. The oil painting depicts four bespectacled St Bernard dogs, sitting around a poker table, with cards and cigars clamped in their paws.  

It might not be a ‘serious’ work of art, but it’s certainly fetched a serious price. In 2015, Poker Game was sold through the art dealer Sotheby’s for a staggering $658,000! (For context, that’s more than six times the price at which an original sketch by the famous portraitist John Singer Sargent was recently sold).

Over the years, Dogs Playing Poker has infiltrated our popular culture, with references to the work popping up everywhere from a Snoop Dogg music video to the beloved Disney Pixar film Up. So, what’s the story behind these iconic paintings? This article will guide you through Coolidge’s collection and explain why these poker-playing dogs continue to entertain us.

How many paintings are in the collection?

Dogs Playing Poker is the collective title for a series of 18 paintings. The first, Poker Game, was self-standing for almost ten years, until the Minnesota-based publishing company Brown & Bigelow commissioned Coolidge to create 16 oil paintings to advertise cigars in 1903. Of these 16, nine feature dogs playing poker – in the remaining seven, they enjoy other (distinctly dog-unfriendly) activities such as ballroom dancing, appearing in court, and reading the mail.

The collection was completed in 1910, when Coolidge painted Looks Like Four Of A Kind and brought the total number of artworks to 18.

How were the paintings received? 

The fact that 16 of the paintings were originally created as advertisements means they occupy a strange position in the art world. Much as Andy Warhol would challenge us, over 50 years later, to consider the lines between art, advertising and pop culture, Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker intrigue us because they represent farcical ideas in the traditionally serious guise of an oil painting. In fact, many of the pictures are modelled on the compositions of works by the renowned artists Cézanne, Caravaggio, and Georges de la Tour.

Throughout the United States, the paintings have become classic examples of kitsch decoration – repeatedly reproduced, referenced, and modified, both as a bit of a joke and as pop culture’s homage to Coolidge. As the art critic Annette Ferrara puts it, Coolidge is ‘the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of’ whose works have imprinted themselves on ‘even the most un-art historically inclined person’.

Although Poker Game is currently Coolidge’s most valuable painting, others in the collection have also sold for high prices. In 2005, the originals of Waterloo and A Bold Bluff were bought (as a pair) for $590,400 – outstripping the previous record price for a Coolidge, which was $74,000.

Whether you love them or hate them, Dogs Playing Poker have become some of the most iconic paintings in America. Just be sure not to follow the example of Coolidge’s (obviously cheating) dogs when you play your own poker games. 

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