Cassius Marcellus Coolidge & Dogs Playing Poker

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Cassius Marcellus Coolidge may not be one of the luminaries of the art world, but to dismiss him completely would be unfair. Coolidge managed to carve a niche for himself, and ultimately left behind an intriguing series of paintings titled Dogs Playing Poker. The paintings in these series initially did not receive much attention, but they became popular, and valuable, years after Coolidge’s passing in 1934.

Dan Barry in his feature on Coolidge for The New York Times, quotes Philadelphia town historian Gwen Acheson, one of the people keeping the legacy of Coolidge alive, as saying “(Coolidge) is supposed to be the Michelangelo of the dog world.” Ironically, even Acheson herself, by her own admission, did not know about Coolidge until his work was brought to her attention.

While Coolidge’s paintings have become part of American pop culture over the years, very little is known about the man nicknamed “Cash,” although he is known to have been an entrepreneur in his early years. He is also believed to have operated a drug store and founded a bank. He even showed his eye for the arts, too, as he drew cartoons, painted street signs, and taught art.

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                                                     Poker Game, 1894

In 1894 Coolidge finished Poker Game, which is his first known dog painting. It would eventually be the first in his Dogs Playing Poker series—several paintings of anthropomorphic dogs mostly playing poker. Most of the paintings in the series are for Brown & Bigelow, a “remembrance advertising” company which, according to the Mental Floss article ‘15 Things You Should Know About Dogs Playing Poker’, commissioned the then 59-year-old artist. Coolidge finished 16 dog paintings for the company from 1903 to 1910, the most popular being  A Friend in Need, which shows a white bulldog lending his friend a much-needed ace. It is often mistakenly called “Dogs Playing Poker” since it is the most famous one in the series.

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                                                   A Friend in Need, 1903

The paintings in the Dogs Playing Poker series, which some say were made to deride the elite of society, were snapshots of Coolidge’s era, and each shows how Americans back in the day played traditional games of poker (stud poker, notably) as a pastime—often in dimly lit, smoke-filled card rooms where the action happens on a table filled with chips of various colours.

Poker is now one the world’s most popular pastimes, especially Texas Hold ‘em, which first rose to prominence in the 1970s. As the entertainment industry has evolved poker has enjoyed a new level of popularity worldwide, with high-stakes games now enjoying considerable airtime on TV. Many more people are now playing poker, although not necessarily on a table anymore. Instead, many poker fanatics are now playing online where they can play against millions of players on their tablet, computer, or phone.

This development is further proof that the game is adapting to the changing times of the digital age. Reputable platform Slingo offers live dealers to their players to further enhance the poker playing experience on the digital site. These online games have rendered the need for a physical table and chips almost anachronistic, as poker is now being played at a much faster rate with ever decreasing human interaction.

If Coolidge were still alive today, he would likely add to his Dogs Playing Poker series paintings of dogs playing poker on smartphones and tablets.

Yes, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge may not be considered by many as an all-time great in the world of the arts, but he certainly left a mark in his own unique way. His legacy will live on, too, as his Dogs Playing Poker series continues to remain popular, especially in pop culture.