Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, A Friend in Need, 1903. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
On April 1, 2002, William Hennessey, the director of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia, released a press release claiming he was trying to acquire the series of oil-on-canvas paintings universally known as “Dogs Playing Poker” (1903-1910). The press release turned out to be a prank—apparently, the idea of hanging such things in a museum was an art historian’s idea of a hilarious joke.
Still, Hennessey admitted that he’d always genuinely liked the series. And he isn’t alone. The “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings, by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, belong to that pantheon of artworks—Michelangelo’s David, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Hopper’s Nighthawks— that are immediately recognizable to people of all ages and backgrounds, including those who don’t readily admit to enjoying art.
It is also, at least by common consensus, pretty far from great. Unlike the Mona Lisa, a masterpiece that’s been kitschified into t-shirts and memes and magnets, Coolidge’s canine paintings were kitsch to begin with, a funny sight-gag, nothing more or less than it appeared to be. In an episode of the ‘80s sitcom Cheers, Sam the (lowbrow) bartender gushes that he notices something new every time he looks at one of the paintings; the line gets a knowing chuckle from the live studio audience. Coolidge’s series seems like the very definition of a guilty pleasure, the artistic equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.
So how, pray tell, did a pack of dogs playing poker outlast so many other “serious” paintings?
Coolidge, who created at least eight variations on the dog/poker theme, including A Friend in Need (1903), the most frequently reproduced of the bunch, wasn’t the first to paint anthropomorphized animals—they’ve always been easy fodder for comedy. But it was his good luck to become a commercial artist at a time when American businesses were beginning to invest heavily in advertising. In 1869, the year Coolidge turned 25, the first modern ad agency, N.W. Ayer & Son, opened its doors; between 1880 and 1920, total advertising expenditures by American companies surged from 200 million dollars to 3 billion. At the heart of this revolution were artists, whose images had to be cute, weird, or otherwise memorable enough to turn consumers’ heads.
In his twenties and thirties, Coolidge dabbled in a series of jobs that may have prepared him for success as a commercial artist. Raised in the small town of Philadelphia in upstate New York, he moved in 1873 to Rochester, where he tried his hand as a druggist, a street address painter, and a cartoonist. At one point, he penned a comic opera about mosquitos. Though he lacked any formal training as an artist, Coolidge seems to have had an intuitive grasp of what made people laugh and what kinds of images they wanted to see. Many art historians credit him with inventing “comic foregrounds,” those plywood pictures with a cut-out hole for a head, allowing passersby to pretend they’re bodybuilders or mermaids. Even if he’d never painted a single pooch, Coolidge’s place in the kitsch canon would be secure…………..