The Story Behind the Iconic Dogs Playing Poker Paintings

Jun 9, 2024

The iconic Dogs Playing Poker is perhaps one of the most well-known paintings associated with the gambling world. Even people who have never once pulled a lever of a slot machine or placed a bet can instantly recognize this painting.

But how many know the history behind it and the reasons for its enduring popularity? Let’s find out in this brief dive into the artistic side of our beloved iGaming medium, where enthusiasts often explore the best casinos online.

The Origin of Dogs Playing Poker

To learn more about Dogs Playing Poker, we need to first learn about its creator, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge.

Coolidge, also known as “Cash” or “Kash,” was born in 1844 in Antwerp, New York, to Quaker parents. Despite having no formal training, Coolidge’s talent for creating humorous and surreal illustrations became evident early on. He began selling his drawings to various magazines in the 1860s and developed a career as an illustrator, particularly for children’s books featuring funny animals​​.

Coolidge’s big break came when he started creating “comic foregrounds” for carnivals—those cartoon murals where people can insert their heads for a funny photo. This innovative idea showcased his knack for combining humor with visual art, a combination that would define his later works​​.

The first painting in what would become the iconic series was titled “Poker Game,” created in 1894. This painting featured anthropomorphized dogs engaging in a game of poker.

And that was just the beginning.

The Series of Dog Paintings

The painting caught the attention of the advertising firm Brown & Bigelow, which commissioned Coolidge in 1903 to produce a series of 16 paintings to be used in their advertising campaigns, particularly for cigars​​.

The series includes other well-known pieces like “A Friend in Need,” “A Bold Bluff,” and “Waterloo.” These paintings depict dogs in various human-like scenarios, often around a poker table, complete with expressions of concentration, deceit, and camaraderie.

But there was a second layer to the paintings, too.

Coolidge’s works often contain subtle satire, mocking the upper class by depicting dogs engaging in sophisticated, human activities. His anthropomorphic portrayal of dogs was not only humorous but also a commentary on social behaviors.

This is comparable to Animal Farm by George Orwell which masked its social critique as a modern fairytale with fantastical elements.

Going back to Coolidge, we can see, for example, the sneaky act of a bulldog slipping an ace to his partner under the table in “A Friend in Need”. This is a playful critique of deceit in social games​​.

Artistic and Financial Legacy

Despite being considered kitsch by the fine art community, Coolidge’s works have achieved significant commercial success. Original paintings from the series have fetched high prices at auctions.

For instance, A Bold Bluff and Waterloo sold for $590,400 in 2005, and Sitting Up with a Sick Friend garnered $658,000 in 2015. Today, these paintings are highly sought after by collectors and continue to command impressive sums​​.

The Dogs Playing Poker series has also had a significant impact on popular culture, appearing in numerous television shows, movies, and advertisements. For instance, The Simpsons has featured the paintings in several episodes, such as Treehouse of Horror IV and Two Dozen & One Greyhounds. The paintings also appear in Family Guy, That ’70s Show, and the movie Looney Tunes: Back in Action, showcasing their broad appeal and enduring popularity​​.

In fact, it would be easier to list shows where this painting wasn’t mentioned.

Additionally, the paintings have been used in advertising campaigns, on merchandise like coffee mugs and T-shirts, and even as part of the opening credits of the TV drama Las Vegas.

Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker” series has transcended its initial purpose as advertising art to become a beloved and iconic part of American culture. The paintings’ mix of humor, relatability, and social commentary has ensured their lasting appeal, making Coolidge an enduring figure in the world of popular art​ – even if people are more familiar with the dogs he’s painted rather than the man himselfs​.