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Friday, November 22, 2013

Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

A Bold Bluff (top) and Waterloo, 1903, Cassius M. Coolidge
Same dogs, separated by a few seconds.
Cassius Marcellus Coolidge,
1920s, (inset: painted
self-portrait from 1888)
You probably don't recognize the name, but I'm sure you've seen his art. It's often referred to as "Dogs Playing Poker" (DPP) and may be one of the longest running jokes in all of artdom. Actually, there were at least sixteen similar such paintings by Cassius "Cash" Coolidge. The two above, A Bold Bluff and Waterloo recently sold at auction as a pair for $590,400. Okay, at that price, it's not quite the joke it used to be. Nonetheless, Coolidge (by the way, there is no single painting titled "Poker Playing Dogs") is right up there with the Leonardo da Vinci as one of the most lampooned artists in the history of lampooned artists. Around the world, from Turkey to New Zealand, apparently all dogs love to play poker. Personally, I have a great deal of respect for Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. Any artist with the patience to get a whole groups of dogs, dressed up in turn of the century haberdashery, to pose for a painting, even if they weren't really playing poker, is a better man than I.
Coolidge's sense of humor played well with his advertising endeavors. Each card featured an ad on the back for a local business. His Marriage in Five Acts dates from 1882 chronicling early infatuation through wedded bliss to...not so much.

Light Me, Cassius Coolidge. He
also painted poker-playing people.
Born in Antwerp, New York, but raised in Philadelphia by strict, Quaker parents, Cassius Coolidge didn't start out painting dogs (poker-playing or otherwise). In fact, he didn't start out to be a painter. He started out to be a druggist, then found sign painting profitable (apparently profitable enough to start a bank). Then he moved on to Rochester, New York, where he started his own newspaper. It was in that enterprise he began to draw cartoons, which led to the advertising business, which led to doing calendar art, which led to Brown and Bigelow, which led to dogs playing poker. During this time he also invented the carnival panel painted with a cartoon body topped by an opening, which people peered through to get their picture taken. The German's came up with a wonderful word for such art--kitsch. "Cash" Coolidge may have invented that too.
Ten Miles to a Garage, 1903, Cassius Coolidge
Behind the Eight Ball, Gerard Taylor
Coolidge's dogs began playing poker for the calendar company, Brown and Bigelow, in 1903. He continued to churn them out until around 1910 during which time his dogs not only learned how to play poker (and cheat at it), but also pool, baseball, ballroom dancing, and in the process learned to read, drink, smoke, drive cars (and fix them, above). Over the past century, Coolidge has proven to be one of the more influential of American artists. His DPP paintings, and his pool hall dogs later spawned a similar school of painting termed PPD (Pool Playing Dogs, left). Today, Coolidge's anthropomorphic dogs have inspired something of a cottage industry among painters (below), proving once and for all that kitsch has no limits as to time and place...or pedigree. As for me, I've given up teaching our two cats how to hold a poker hand. I'd be satisfied if I could just teach them how to keep from missing the litter box.

Poker Pups III, Jenny Newland--ahh, so cute, but still kitsch.
er, Bryan Moon. Did someone say, broken bone?

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