By Sean Chaffin
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s mark on poker stands the test of time. His “Dogs Playing Poker” works have been the inspiration for coffee mugs, posters, neckties, movies, video games, websites, and much more. His paintings have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and their place has been secured in popular American lore.
While Coolidge remains an obscurity in the art world, his works are some of the most well-known pieces of Americana.
As a group, his poker artwork has been generically coined as “Dogs Playing Poker,” although the term is not the official name of the 16 oil paintings for which Coolidge is responsible. An advertising firm contracted the Antwerp, New York, native in 1903 to paint the dog works as part of a campaign to advertise cigars. Nine of the works feature dogs around a table, complete with human clothes, poses, cigars, and, of course, poker cards and chips. In the ensuing century, the paintings’ popularity has continued to grow.
In February, Coolidge’s “Only a Pair of Deuces” fetched a whopping $193,000 in the Tenth Annual Dogs in Art Auction, which coincided with the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Two others, “A Bold Bluff” and “Waterloo,” were auctioned as a pair in 2005 for the staggering price of $590,000.
The “poker dogs” appealed to many working class American sensibilities. These canines were not warm and cuddly, but exuded machismo—anthropomorphic alpha males. Coolidge painted other paintings of dogs in human situations, but none ever approached the popularity of his poker dogs.
Joseph E. Richey has run the website dogsplayingpoker.org since 2001 and is obsessed with Coolidge’s work and their place in the American cultural landscape. A software developer in Iowa, his interest in Coolidge and his works have made him an unofficial Coolidge historian.
“Although I am not much of a gambler, seeing man’s best friends sitting around a table, having some drinks, and enjoying each other’s company, just has a sort of deep-down, masculine appeal that is hard to pinpoint,” he said. “It captures the idea of guys hanging out, just enjoying themselves. But having a picture on the wall of other guys playing cards would probably be weird for a lot of men, so pooches make a nice substitute while conveying the feeling.”
The paintings have a comedic impact, Richey says, but also make a real connection with poker players’ camaraderie.
“(The paintings) have become one of those hallmarks of American society, for better or worse, that everyone knows,” he says. “Especially for guys, we can joke about that painting itself, but also remember a poker night that we ourselves enjoyed with some friends.”
Born in 1844 in Antwerp and named after anti-slavery advocate Cassius Marcellus Clay, Coolidge was much more than just a painter. He owned his hometown’s first bank and newspaper, wrote a comedic opera, was a skilled cartoonist, and an inventor. But his art skills at painting dogs acting as humans were what permanently etched his mark on the world—and many people’s homes. “I’m not much of an art critic, so I can’t really say if he should get more respect or not,” Richey notes. “Perhaps from an academic or purist form, dogs playing poker isn’t exactly high art, but Coolidge did find a way to connect with people in a recognizable, lasting way.”