They are not considered masterpieces by the art world. But the series of paintings collectively known as Dogs Playing Poker is as easily recognized as anything by one of the great masters.
What is less familiar is the story behind these paintings, and the painter is often described as the most famous artist no one ever knew. Let’s explore who he was, why he painted the iconic series, and what made the paintings so renowned.
Dogs Playing Poker Painting Series
Dogs Playing Poker is a group of 11 paintings by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge that depict dogs with cards around a poker table. It is part of a more extensive series of oil-on-canvas paintings Coolidge did between 1894 and 1910. It features anthropomorphized dogs engaged in several activities, including playing pool and dancing.
Their Early Rise to Popularity
Many of the paintings first showed up on cigar boxes, commissioned by the merchandise promoter Brown & Bigelow. They were reproduced in a series of calendars promoting cigars in 1903, and that campaign took off.
Reproductions went up in rec rooms, barbershops, and other businesses across the country. The paintings soon became iconic in American culture as home decorations everywhere.
The Iconic Dogs Playing Poker Painting | A Friend in Need
The most popular of the series, A Friend in Need, is the painting most prominent in game-rooms, man caves, and dens across the US. It shows several breeds of dogs grouped around a poker table with chips in the middle. Some of the pups smoke, and all have a drink at hand… or paw.
What Makes This One So Famous?
The unique thing about this one is that while most dogs study their cards, there is a little deception happening in the foreground under the table. The bulldog passes a mutt pal an ace to add to his cards. Apparently, this has been going on all night because the two appear to have the large chip stacks in the game.
The hustle and the fact that the little bulldogs are fleecing the bigger Saint Bernards, Collie, and Great Dane make A Friend in Need unique. It caricatures human nature in the form of man’s best friend and favorite parlor game.
The original paintings don’t appear in public much, but some have sold in auctions for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The earliest in the series, Poker Game, painted in 1894, sold for $658,000 at an auction in 2015. The originals of A Bold Bluff and Waterloo were auctioned as a pair for $590,400 in 2005. A Friend in Need, painted in 1903, has never been publicly sold but is said to be worth millions.
Who Was Cassius Marcellus Coolidge?
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge was never formally trained in art but loved art and painting. Born in 1884 to Quaker farmers in upstate New York, Coolidge started painting in his twenties. He obviously had a good sense of humor and an ability to grab attention.
You can see the inspiration for his dog paintings in Sir Edwin Landseer’s Laying Down the Law (1840) and Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps (1594). His first jobs were in Rochester, NY, where he did everything from street address painting to cartooning.
In 1903 he signed a contract with Brown & Bigelow in Minnesota. The firm paid him to do illustrations for promotions, and he produced the bulk of the dog series.
Dogs Playing Poker in Pop Culture
As commercial art, Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker became hugely popular in his time. That popularity has survived for more than a century.
Because the dogs series is so well known, it emerges in various forms today in music, TV, film, and video games. There have been dozens of modern references to Dogs Playing Poker. Here are just a few examples of when and where the dogs showed up:
- Cheers (1987)
- The Simpsons (five episodes)
- Roseanne (1988-97 set)
- That 70s Show (2000)
- Law & Order (2002)
- Lilo & Stitch (2003)
- Family Guy (2006)
- Ray Donovan (2020)
- Moving Pictures (1981), Rush (album cover)
- What’s My Name? (1993), Snoop Dogg video
- I Wanna Thank Me (2019), Snoop Dogg (album cover)
- Hudson Hawk (1991)
- The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
- Up (2009)
- The Accountant (2016)
- Psychonauts (2005)
- Fallout: New Vegas (2011)
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Coolidge picked a perfect game for his caricature of Americana. However, he could never have imagined a digital age where the poker parlor can be virtually anywhere. What would he paint these days, with thousands of people playing poker online with others worldwide?
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A Timeless Masterpiece Found Its Place in History
Coolidge was painting at a time when commercial art was getting its legs. He needed to grab attention and turn heads. He took two American favorites – dogs and poker – and combined them to create a timeless classic. You see, we still love our dogs, we still love our poker, and we still adore the paintings Coolidge gave us.
FAQ – Dogs Playing Poker Painting
People ask a ton of questions about these Dogs Playing Poker, and we found the answers. Below are some of the commonly asked things about the paintings.
What is the meaning of Dogs Playing Poker?
The meaning of Dogs Playing Poker is different for different people. But it is generally considered a satirical look at society and a beloved recreation.
How much is the Dogs Playing Poker painting worth?
The most popular Dogs Playing Poker painting, A Friend in Need, has never been publicly sold but is said to be worth millions — the first of the series sold for $658,000 at an auction.
What breeds are Dogs Playing Poker?
The majority of the humanized dogs in Dogs Playing Poker are Saint Bernards, Great Danes, English Bulldogs, and Collies.
Who created the Dogs Playing Poker?
Commercial artist Cassius Marcellus Coolidge created the Dogs Playing Poker series as part of a promotional campaign.
Who painted the picture of the Dogs Playing Poker?
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge painted the picture of the Dogs Playing Poker that is most popular – A Friend in Need.