Story Behind the 'Dogs Playing Poker' Paintings

  • 09/09/2019

Dog Paw-traits: The Surreal Paintings of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

Paws for a thought at the idea that Coolidge decided, it was perhaps a good statement to place a series of different breeds of canine at a poker table and have them playing a series of games. Madness or genius? Well, we look at this work in-depth to reveal what the motives were behind the 18-painting series that is now embedded into iconic imagery.

The power of Coolidge is so far removed from modern times, that with age, this will progressively become more surreal as the hands of time pass. For this to fit into modern contexts you’d have dogs in a bar on mobile phones placing their sports bets through sites such as which also provides poker and casino games (such as slots, roulette, blackjack…) for the canines.

What Coolidge did was to challenge ‘norms’ and the order of things by humanising the dogs; all is fair in love and poker.

The works began in 1894 with the original Poker Game painting, which led to Coolidge’s commission to make more for cigar advertising. In total, eighteen paintings were produced both for commercial and commissioned use.

Perhaps one of the most recognisable pieces was seen as a comical piece of art which spawned much ridicule in the from art historians in the years and decades to follow. But the piece as we know became iconic.

The painting conjures character, from the individual expressions down to the handling of pipes, cards and chips, as if perfectly normal. The paintings have been much revered in modern pop culture with many homages working their way into other artistic outlets such as popular TV-shows and t-shirt motifs, the list goes on…

Cassius Marcellus Coolidge - once dubbed “the most famous American painter you’ve never heard of” - was born in 1844, with no formal artistic training. His talent for humour lead him to create his works and at the age of 20, he sold is drawing to various magazines.

The inspiration for his work has been one of many debates, with a number of people pointing to the works of Caravaggio and Cezanne, whom all depicted poker games with human subjects. There is also the work of Sir Landseer and the painting ‘Laying Down the Law’ which was created in 1840 and used dogs as the subject of the work.

As Coolidge was fond of humour, this freed his work from any hidden connotations or symbolic meaning. You simply get what you see: dogs playing poker, no elitist shaming or social innuendo. The dogs even have dogs as pets, confirming there is no other world out there. Them playing poker games is as normal as thinking that the clocks and painting within the paintings would have been created by canines also.

Coolidge’s work has since been sold for over half a million, far surpassing auction estimations of $30,000 to $50,000. The kind of money you would need to win in poker to reward yourself with such fine art ironically.

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