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Poker’s Masterpiece Collection
The action is three-handed, and it’s hot and heavy. You can sense the drama. Everything seems to hinge on this one hand. One player has made a substantial bet, is sitting there calm and cool, poker face on, and has a lit cigar in one hand. The other two, one with a cigar dangling from mouth and the other a pipe, are eyeing up their opponent intently. Peeking beyond their glasses as if to suggest they smell a bluff. It feels like they’ve been playing a while, perhaps all night, and the drinks are flowing just as fast as the chips are. There are two bottles of whiskey on the table, a money bag too, and a lone spectator is leaning over the table, nervously smoking a cigarette, and anxiously awaiting the outcome. The end result will prove anti-climactic, though. If you look closely enough, one of them has exposed their hand — four aces.
There’s no telling how much exactly was in the pot, but the entire haul would eventually be pushed the way of the St. Bernard on the left. Four-of-a-kind is hard to beat after all, especially four aces. You might say, the initial bettor was barking up the wrong tree. Poker Game (1894) is the first in a series of 18 paintings by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, a collection now famously known as Dogs Playing Poker.
“Going once, going twice, sold!”
The art world may never see another year like 2015. Auction houses were on fire, setting records here, there, and everywhere. First, a Picasso sold for a whopping $179 million, the highest bid ever. Next, Chinese billionaire Liu Xiqian acquired a Modigliani, Nu Couche (Reclining Nude), for $170 million, the second highest price ever paid for a painting. Then came a third shocking purchase. Coolidge’s Poker Game was scooped up for an incredible $658,000 at Sotheby’s.
Not bad for a piece once considered a comical farce, and denounced by critics, right?
Dogs Playing Poker is a collective of Coolidge’s first offering in the late 1800s, a 1903 series of sixteen oil paintings commissioned by Brown & Bigelow to advertise cigars, and a 1910 painting. Each of the 18 works are similar in that they feature humanized dogs, but only eleven depict them seated around a card table. Considered kitsch art because they appeal to popular rather that ‘high art’ tastes, the paintings have become appreciated for their knowingly ironic and humorous take on a national pastime. They’ve become extremely valuable, too.
In 2005, two of the paintings sold at auction for a $590,400 to a private collector in New York. “Dog Poker Art Fetches Big Bucks,” read the headline from an article posted on cbsnews.com. The two works — A Bold Bluff and A Waterloo — were among those commissioned by Brown & Bigelow, an advertising company based in St. Paul, Minnesota in the early 1900s. Ready for this? They were only expected to sell for anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000. The paintings’ sequential narrative follows the same players in the course of one hand of poker. In the first, the St. Bernard holds a weak hand as the rest sport their best poker faces. In the second, much to the chagrin of the others, the St. Bernard is seen to be raking in a large pot.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Alan Fausel, an executive at Doyle New York. “A lot of people came to speculate on the piece, a lot of whom were outside our traditional area of collectors,” he told CNN Money.
Remember, thanks to Chris Moneymaker’s improbable world championship title run just two years earlier in the WSOP main event, and the subsequent, so-called ‘Moneymaker Effect’, poker had exploded by 2005. The game’s popularity was surging, players were fast becoming household names, and it was the in-vogue thing to do. The sale was perfectly suited for the time.
Works of Art
Once dubbed “the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of,” Coolidge remains largely unknown, although his paintings have become iconic fixtures in the world of pop culture. According to art historians, he is also responsible for what are now called comic foregrounds, the cartoon murals you might see at carnivals that allow people to pop their heads through and pose for a picture.
The Coolidge Collection:
- Poker Game, poker
- A Bachelor’s Dog, reading the mail
- A Bold Bluff, poker (originally titled Judge St. Bernard Stands Pat on Nothing)
- Breach of Promise Suit, testifying in court
- A Friend in Need, poker and cheating
- His Station and Four Aces, poker
- New Year’s Eve in Dogville, ballroom dancing
- One to Tie Two to Win, baseball
- Pinched with Four Aces, poker, illegal gambling
- Poker Sympathy, poker
- Post Mortem, poker, camaraderie
- The Reunion, smoking, drinking, camaraderie
- Riding the Goat, Masonic initiation
- Sitting up with a Sick Friend, poker, gender relations
- Stranger in Camp, poker, camping
- Ten Miles to a Garage, travel, car trouble, teamwork
- A Waterloo, poker (originally titled Judge St. Bernard Wins on a Bluff)
- Looks Like Four of a Kind, poker
“They’re dogs, and they’re playing poker.”
Homer Simpson was stating the obvious as he stared at one of the painting’s, an episode titled Tree House of Horror IV (1993), but what happened next was far from expected. He begins to laugh uncontrollably, hysterically, and is seemingly being driven insane by its surrealistic nuance. Dogs Playing Poker has been parodied and lampooned by animated television shows like The Simpsons, Family Guy and Lilo & Stitch, and sitcoms like Cheers, Rosanne and That 70s Show. The series has been referenced in dramas like Law and Order, big screen hits like Police Academy, and music videos, too.
Legendary recording artist Snoop Doggy Dogg fittingly used a variation of one of the paintings in the video for his 1993 solo debut single “What’s My Name?”. Instead of dogs playing poker, they were dogs playing craps. Since imitation is the greatest form of flattery, it’s safe to say Dogs Playing Poker will be around for years to come. There have been endless takes on the collection, including super heroes playing poker and cartoon characters playing poker.
The theme also pops up in comic strips. In a The Far Side cartoon, a homeless artist can be seen sitting on the street, surrounded by unsold paintings similar to Coolidge’s, but featuring other animals instead, like giraffes, bugs, and chickens to name a few. The caption explains how the artist remained unknown until that “fateful day when a friend said, ‘have you tried dogs playing poker?’”
Sports fans may remember the Dogs Playing Poker TV ads that aired during the 1998 and 1999 NFL seasons on ESPN Sunday Night Football. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried, once the star of the Aflac duck commercials, played the voice for the leading canine’s character.
Has the art world gone to the dogs? Yes. And, a quick search on twitter will prove it. It only took seconds to find this classic from @jollyrobber, who posted it just a few days ago:
Look if your art “museum” doesn’t have dogs playing poker, I’m not wasting my time.
— 🏴☠️ How YOU Doin 🏴☠️ (@jollyrobber) April 12, 2021
“Look, if your art museum doesn’t have Dogs Playing Poker, I’m not wasting my time.”