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

Could Leonardo da Vinci's Artistic Genius Be Due to an Eye Condition?

Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

Leonardo da Vinci was indisputably a genius, but his singular artistic vision may have been the result of seeing the world differently in more ways than one. A new paper argues that he had strabismus, a vision disorder where the eyes are misaligned and don’t look toward the same place at the same time. This disorder, visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler argues, may have helped the artist render three-dimensional images on flat canvas with an extra level of skill.

Tyler is a professor at City, University of London who has written a number of studies on optics and art. In this study, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, he examined six different artworks from the period when Leonardo was working, including Young John the Baptist, Vitruvian Man, and a self-portrait by the artist. He also analyzed pieces by other artists that are thought to have used Leonardo as a model, like Andrea del Verrocchio’s Young Warrior sculpture. Leonardo served as the lead assistant in the latter artist’s studio, and likely served as the model for several of his works. Leonardo was also a friend of Benedetto da Maiano, and possibly served as a model for his 1480 sculpture of John the Baptist. Tyler also looked at the recently auctioned Salvator Mundi, a painting that not all experts believe can be attributed to Leonardo. (However, at least one scientific team that examined the painting says it’s legit.)

With strabismus, a person’s eyes appear to point in different directions. Based on the eyes in Leonardo’s own portraits of himself and other artworks modeled after him, it seems likely that he had intermittent strabismus. When he relaxed his eyes, one of his eyes drifted outward, though he was likely able to align his eyes when he focused. The gaze in the portraits and sculptures seems to be misaligned, with the left eye consistently drifting outward at around the same angle.

'Vitruvian Man' with the subject's pupils highlighted
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci (~1490, Accademia, Venice)
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

“The weight of converging evidence suggests that [Leonardo] had intermittent exotropia—where an eye turns outwards—with a resulting ability to switch to monocular vision, using just one eye,” Tyler explained in a press release. “The condition is rather convenient for a painter, since viewing the world with one eye allows direct comparison with the flat image being drawn or painted.” This would have given him an assist in depicting depth accurately.

Leonardo isn’t the first famous artist whose vision researchers have wondered about. Some have speculated that Degas’s increasingly coarse pastel work in his later years may have been attributed to his degenerating eyes, as the rough edges would have appeared smoother to him because of his blurred vision. Others have suggested that Van Gogh’s “yellow period” and the vibrant colors of Starry Night may have been influenced by yellowing vision caused by his use of digitalis, a medicine he took for epilepsy.

We can never truly know whether a long-dead artist’s work was the result of visual issues or simply a unique artistic vision, but looking at their art through the lens of medicine provides a new way of understanding their process.

Learn to Paint Like Bob Ross in an Upcoming Facebook Live Event

Public television hero Bob Ross may no longer be with us, but you can still paint happy little trees in his honor. October 29, 2018 marks what would have been the 76th birthday of the beloved art teacher to the masses, and to honor his memory, the Quarto Group—publisher of the new book Painting With Bob Ross—is hosting a live-streamed painting party online.

Painting With Bob Ross provides step-by-step instructions to help you create some of the master’s favorite oil landscapes on your own. While Quarto’s October 23 painting party (a collaboration with Bob Ross, Inc.) can’t teach you how to mimic Ross's soothing voice, the celebration does include a painting session with Bernie Oropallo, a Certified Ross Instructor, who will demonstrate the techniques that Ross taught on The Joy of Painting.

Promo for The Quarto Group's Bob Ross painting party
The Quarto Group

The live-streamed instructional session will take place within the offices of a youth arts center in Beverly, Massachusetts, called Express Yourself. Oropallo will lead you through the process of painting “Distant Mountains,” one of the artworks included in the new book.

The painting lesson kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on October 23. To participate, log onto Facebook and head to the QuartoCreates page to join the live event. Before it starts, check out the event page here for a list of the supplies you’ll need to complete the painting. If you can’t make it to a computer that night, grab Painting With Bob Ross on Amazon ($15) to get the next best thing. If that’s not enough for you, we suggest you curl up with the official Bob Ross art book and/or a Bob Ross coloring book.

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