The most famous American artist you’ve never heard of
Long before the Internet was awash with cats wearing costumes and dogs riding skateboards, there was Dogs Playing Poker. Created by artist Cassius Coolidge in the 1900s, his series of Dogs Playing Poker oil paintings had people in hysterics. With their expressive faces, pinstripe suits and elegant pipes, Coolidge’s poker dogs were as funny to turn-of-the-century types as Grumpy Cat, Biddy the Hedgehog or the Sneezing Panda is to the modern day Millennial. And today we can think of Coolidge as nothing less than the grandfather of the modern meme.
But who was the man behind the St Bernard’s and Boarder Collies and why did he paint dogs playing poker in the first place?
The lives of many artists from the 20th Century are documented in an almost excruciating amount of detail. Everyone knows about Vinnie (Van Gough) and Henri (Matisse), for example. Sure, Vinnie didn’t find fame during his own lifetime, but now many of his artworks are regarded as masterpieces and almost every detail of his life is recorded in volume after volume of art history books. So too, Mr Matisse. But Coolidge has, until now, been something of a mystery man. Now that his artwork is finally being thrown a bone by the high art establishment and attracting collectors from around the world, the man himself is finally out of the shadows.
It seems the man behind the dogs had a CV that included just about everything except dog ownership. In 1871 he founded the first bank in Antwerp before jumping ship to own a chemist store with a friend. Never one to sit still for long, Coolidge was off again this time to become the owner of a newspaper. The fact that it failed didn’t slow Coolidge one bit. An irrepressible busy bee, Coolidge soldiered on, inventing things, farming things and generally hopping from one thing to the next – including writing an opera and a few comedic plays!
What remained in the background was his interest in art. While it doesn’t appear he ever received a formal education in art, from the age of 20 Coolidge was sketching and creating. He even patented something called ‘comic foregrounds’ in which he would draw life size caricatures with a head hole cut out. Customers would put their head in the hole and be transformed into exaggerated characters or immersed in a fantastical scene. But apart from that not much else in the artistic vein was produced. Until, that is, he started on his Dogs Playing Poker Series. Initially created as an eye-catching advertising concept to sell cigars, the dogs first appeared in a calendar.
Over the decades the Dogs Playing Poker became iconic. Copied and parodied endlessly over the decades, they came to be ubiquitous, with nary a billiard room complete without one. The appeal of dogs thinking they’re people has just never worn off! So much so that Coolidge’s 1894 Poker Game was auctioned to the tune of $658,000 in 2015! If only Coolidge himself was around to see the day!
Cover image: Cassius Marcellus Coolidge's 1903 painting Dogs Playing Poker