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

15 Things You Should Know About Dogs Playing Poker

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"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.

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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Take a Peek Inside One of Berlin's Strangest Museums
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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Vlad Korneev is a man with an obsession. He's spent years collecting technical and industrial objects from the last century—think iron lungs, World War II gas masks, 1930s fans, and vintage medical prostheses. At his Designpanoptikum in Berlin, which bills itself (accurately) as a "surreal museum of industrial objects," Korneev arranges his collection in fascinating, if disturbing, assemblages. (Atlas Obscura warns that it's "half design museum, half horror house of imagination.") Recently, the Midnight Archive caught up with Vlad for a special tour and some insight into the question visitors inevitably ask—"but what is it, really?" You can watch the full video below.

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Courtesy of Nikon
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Microscopic Videos Provide a Rare Close-Up Glimpse of the Natural World
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Courtesy of Nikon

Nature’s wonders aren’t always visible to the naked eye. To celebrate the miniature realm, Nikon’s Small World in Motion digital video competition awards prizes to the most stunning microscopic moving images, as filmed and submitted by photographers and scientists. The winners of the seventh annual competition were just announced on September 21—and you can check out the top submissions below.

FIRST PRIZE

Daniel von Wangenheim, a biologist at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, took first place with a time-lapse video of thale cress root growth. For the uninitiated, thale cress—known to scientists as Arabidopsis thalianais a small flowering plant, considered by many to be a weed. Plant and genetics researchers like thale cress because of its fast growth cycle, abundant seed production, ability to pollinate itself, and wild genes, which haven’t been subjected to breeding and artificial selection.

Von Wangenheim’s footage condenses 17 hours of root tip growth into just 10 seconds. Magnified with a confocal microscope, the root appears neon green and pink—but von Wangenheim’s work shouldn’t be appreciated only for its aesthetics, he explains in a Nikon news release.

"Once we have a better understanding of the behavior of plant roots and its underlying mechanisms, we can help them grow deeper into the soil to reach water, or defy gravity in upper areas of the soil to adjust their root branching angle to areas with richer nutrients," said von Wangenheim, who studies how plants perceive and respond to gravity. "One step further, this could finally help to successfully grow plants under microgravity conditions in outer space—to provide food for astronauts in long-lasting missions."

SECOND PRIZE

Second place went to Tsutomu Tomita and Shun Miyazaki, both seasoned micro-photographers. They used a stereomicroscope to create a time-lapse video of a sweating fingertip, resulting in footage that’s both mesmerizing and gross.

To prompt the scene, "Tomita created tension amongst the subjects by showing them a video of daredevils climbing to the top of a skyscraper," according to Nikon. "Sweating is a common part of daily life, but being able to see it at a microscopic level is equal parts enlightening and cringe-worthy."

THIRD PRIZE

Third prize was awarded to Satoshi Nishimura, a professor from Japan’s Jichi Medical University who’s also a photography hobbyist. He filmed leukocyte accumulations and platelet aggregations in injured mouse cells. The rainbow-hued video "provides a rare look at how the body reacts to a puncture wound and begins the healing process by creating a blood clot," Nikon said.

To view the complete list of winners, visit Nikon’s website.

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