1903: Dogs Playing Poker

In 1903, the Minnesota advertising firm of Brown & Bigalow tasked Cassius Marcellus Coolidge with producing a series of oil paintings depicting dogs engaging in human activities; nine of the 16 paintings ultimately created by the now rarely recalled “Michelangelo of the dog world” feature man’s best friend playing poker.

More than 100 years later, “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,” wrote Annette Ferrara in a take-no-prisoners article for the now defunct Ten By Ten magazine.

Allison Cooney, a specialist on American paintings for Sotheby’s offers a different assessment: “It’s a humorous, ironic take; a jab at middle-class America; another way of poking fun at ourselves.” The second interpretation, of course, is the more lucrative – two of the series sold for a combined $560,000 in 2005, setting a record for work produced in 1903.

For your trivia night: Both Coolidge and a more famous Cassius take their name from “one of the most eloquent antislavery politicians of the antebellum South, the Kentucky senator Cassius Marcellus Clay.” If you don’t remember Coolidge for his paintings, you can just as easily not remember that he is credited with having invented “Comic Foregrounds,” amusement park “placards of headless musclemen and bathing beauties that tourists could stick their own faces through, to be photographed.”

Image: His Station and Four Aces, 1903

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