15 Things You Should Know About Dogs Playing Poker

"A Friend in Need" by C.M. Coolidge
"A Friend in Need" by C.M. Coolidge

Thanks to Dogs Playing Poker, painter Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (a.k.a. C.M. Coolidge) has earned the dubious distinction of being called "the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of." But while critics might sniff at his contribution to the art world, the history of his greatest works is rich. 

1. Dogs Playing Poker is not one painting, but a series. 

Coolidge's earliest explorations of dog paintings were made for cigar boxes. Then, in 1903, the 59-year-old artist started working for the “remembrance advertising” company Brown & Bigelow. From there, he began churning out works like A Bold Bluff, Poker Sympathy, and Pinched With Four Aces, which were reproduced as posters, calendars, and prints, sometimes as parts of promotional giveaways.  

2. The most popular of these paintings is of dogs cheating at poker. 

A Friend in Need pits a pair of bulldogs against five huge hounds. Who could blame them for slipping helpful cards under the table with their toes? As the most beloved of this series, A Friend In Need is also the one most often misnamed "Dogs Playing Poker." 

3. These PAINTINGS gave Coolidge some fame in his 60s. 

Coolidge already had a quirky artistic claim to fame—he’s credited as the father of Comic Foregrounds, those carnival attractions where tourists can stick their heads atop a cartoon figure as a photo op. But with Dogs Playing Poker catching on through calendar and poster sales, Coolidge was able to sell some of the original paintings for $2000 to $10,000.

4. Dogs Playing Poker has never received much critical praise.

Commissioned for commercial use, these paintings are regarded most often as kitsch, art that is basically bad to the bone. Recounting the highbrow opinion of these pieces, Poker News's Martin Harris explained, "For some the paintings represent the epitome of kitsch or lowbrow culture, a poor-taste parody of 'genuine' art." 

5. THEY became a staple in working class home décor ANYWAY. 

In the 1970s, kitsch was king, and demand for Dogs Playing Poker hit its peak—which made the pooches readily available in various affordable forms. Or, as art critic Annette Ferrara put it, "These signature works, for better or worse, are indelibly burned into the subconscious slide library of even the most un-art historically inclined person through their incessant reproduction on all manner of pop ephemera: calendars, t-shirts, coffee mugs, the occasional advertisement."

6. They could be seen as a sort of self-portrait. 

Coolidge went by the nickname "Cash" and has been described as a hustler whose résumé showed quite a few career changes. Before he was painting for calendars, he worked painting street signs and houses and also tried his hand at being a druggist, an art teacher, and cartoonist. He also started his own bank and his own newspaper. So perhaps the pooches who are always looking for the angles represented Coolidge’s own ambitions.

7. kITSCH OR NOT, Dogs Playing Poker paintings sell for big bucks. 

A 1998 auction saw a Coolidge original sell for $74,000 at Sotheby's. Then in 2005, A Bold Bluff and Waterloo: Two were put up for auction in Doyle New York’s Dogs in Art Auction. Before they hit the block, predictions were made that the pair of rare paintings would fetch $30,000 to $50,000. But an anonymous bidder ultimately paid a whopping $590,400 for them, setting a record for the sale of Coolidge works. 

8. This pricey pair shares a storyline.

Auction notes from the Doyle event explain, "The (paintings') sequential narrative follows the same 'players' in the course of a hand of poker. In the first (A Bold Bluff), our main character, the St. Bernard, holds a weak hand as the rest of the crew maintains their best poker faces. In the following scene (Waterloo: Two), we see the St. Bernard raking in the large pot, much to the very obvious dismay of his fellow players."

9. Not all of the Dogs Playing Poker series fit the name.

Coolidge painted 16 pieces within this collection, but only nine of them actually show dogs playing poker. Higher Education displayed helmeted pups playing football. New Year's Eve in Dogsville imagines a romantic soiree with dinner and dancing dogs. And Breach of Promise Suit showed a canine court. 

10. Dogs Playing Poker has a small place of honor in Philadelphia, N.Y.

Coolidge was raised in Philadelphia, but the small town was largely unaware of the fame of their former resident until 1991. That's when his then 80-year-old daughter Gertrude Marcella Coolidge took it upon herself to travel to Philadelphia and give a print from his collection to the town. Today, this piece is framed and hangs within the one-room museum at the back of the local library. Visitors can also ask to see a thin folder of related Coolidge materials. 

11. Coolidge's wife and daughter were unimpressed by Dogs Playing Poker. 

In 2002, 92-year-old Gertrude told The New York Times that she and her mother were more cat people than dog lovers, but she admitted, "You can't imagine a cat playing poker. It doesn't seem to go."

12. Dogs Playing Poker have been compared to Tennessee Williams' plays. 

Maybe that sounds silly. What do plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Streetcar Named Desire have in common with these kitsch masterpieces? According to New York Times contributor James McManus, these works share similar views on sexual politics: "Men drink, bellow, smoke and play poker. The women who serve them … their game is to tame the bad boys." 

For Williams, this means Maggie the Cat, Stella Kowalski, or her frail sister Blanche DuBois. For Coolidge, it means a cocktail-serving poodle, or a pair of terriers breaking up the game.

13. Coolidge pulled inspiration from great artists who came before. 

The works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Georges de La Tour, and Paul Cézanne are often cited as influences on how Coolidge posed his canine card players. 

14. The art elite still give Dogs Playing Poker no respect. 

Popularity and prestige do not always come hand in hand. Art critics have long sneered at the commissioned works Coolidge undertook. Even his 1934 obituary described his greatest artistic accomplishment as "painted many pictures of dogs." But a low blow was delivered on April Fool's Day when the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., posted a prank in the form of a press release proclaiming the institution wanted to exhibit Dogs Playing Poker

Chrysler Director William Hennessey was quoted as saying, "There's long been a spirited debate in scholarly circles about the position of canine art within the canon. I believe it is now time for these iconic images to assume their rightful place on the walls of our institutions where homo-centric art has too long been unjustly privileged."

This praise was followed by an addendum: "EDITOR'S NOTE: April Fool! Every word printed above is true with the single exception of the suggestion that the Chrysler is actually trying to obtain these paintings." 

15. Critics might be missing the point. 

Many critics have dismissed Coolidge's works as trivial because of their commercial origins. But in the 2004 book Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore that Shaped Modern America, Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger proposed that Dogs Playing Poker was a satirical series intended to mock the upper class in their excesses and attitudes. Basically, Coolidge's critics might not be in on the true joke here.

Art

Bob Dylan's Lyrics, Poetry, and Prose Showcased at Chicago's American Writers Museum

A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
A collection of Bob Dylan poems that was auctioned off by Christie's in 2005.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Like a Rolling Stone, Tangled Up in Blue, Blowin’ in the Wind, and The Times They Are a-Changin’ are among Bob Dylan’s best songs, but the 77-year-old singer’s writing isn’t limited to lyrics. Dylan has also penned poems, prose, an autobiography, and a nearly four-hour movie (that got terrible reviews).

An ongoing showcase at Chicago’s American Writers Museum is paying homage to Dylan the writer. The "Bob Dylan: Electric" exhibit, which will remain on view though April 30, 2019, highlights dozens of items from Dylan’s expansive career.

“The world knows Bob Dylan as a prolific songwriter,” museum president Carey Cranston said in a statement. “'Bob Dylan: Electric’ gives the public a chance to see how his writing shaped more than just American music, but American literature as a whole.”

The period covers Dylan’s “electric” career, beginning with the time he made his electric guitar debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. The exact instrument he played at the festival—a 1964 sunburst Fender Stratocaster—is naturally one of the items on display.

Visitors can also check out Dylan’s personal copy of The Catcher in the Rye, which he read in the summer of 1961. He jotted down notes and drew doodles in the back of the book, including a bottle of rye and the words “good book.” (Interestingly enough, a talent agent approached Dylan the following year and asked if he’d play Holden Caulfield in a movie adaptation of the book. For better or worse, that never came to fruition.)

Dylan’s writing was recognized with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016. At the time, the committee's decision to award a songwriter rather than a novelist was a controversial one. The New York Times dubbed it a “disappointing choice,” while Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting) was a little more blunt, calling it “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Nonetheless, Dylan accepted the award, eventually releasing a video detailing his literary influences. Moby-Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Odyssey are just a few of the singer-songwriter’s many inspirations.

Vinnie Ream: The Teen Who Met With Abraham Lincoln for 30 Minutes Every Day

Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.

Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.

After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.

Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”

Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.

After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.

Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.

But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.

Vinnie Ream's sculpture of Abraham Lincoln still stands in the Capital Rotunda
USCapitol via Flickr // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

This article originally ran in 2016.

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