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CM Coolidge Dogs Playing Poker Art History Lesson


[Intro music] Okay, so I’m a dog. Not just any dog mind you, I’m the bulldog
in Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s famous ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ painting “A Bold Bluff.” My rival is sitting across the table from
me. Judge St. Bernard. He’s had a good game, I’ll give you that. But the chips are on the table and I’ve got
a decision to make. Maybe he’s bluffing? We’d all like to know. Should I call? Up the ante? Or should I fold? I’ve got a fair hand, but he sure does seem
confident in that hand he’s been dealt. Well, we’ll just have to see what I do on
the next scene… Well, would you believe that scoundrel? Yep, I folded. And he only had a pair of deuces! I would have beat him hands down. Well, that’s poker sometimes. You win some, you lose some. Let’s learn some more about the man who painted
these scenes – Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. You may have heard about these paintings,
“Dogs Playing Poker.” And you’ve probably seen one or more of them
for yourself. “Dogs Playing Poker” are a series of eighteen
paintings featuring anthropomorphized dogs. The eleven paintings that show dogs seated
around a card table have become well known in the United States as examples of kitsch
art in home decoration. Critic Annette Ferrara has described Dogs
Playing Poker as “indelibly burned into … the American collective-schlock subconscious … through
incessant reproduction on all manner of pop ephemera.” Okay, so let’s learn a little more about this
artist and his work. This history is coming from the My Modern
MET website, and the article that I’m going to read from is “The Story Behind the Iconic
‘Dogs Playing Poker’ Paintings” by Emma Taggart, published on September 28th, 2018. So who was Cassius Marcellus Coolidge? Although his paintings are now considered
iconic in the world of pop culture, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge is largely unknown and
was once dubbed the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of. The artist was born in 1844 and had no formal
art training. Despite this, he had a talent for creating
playfully surreal, humorous illustrations and started selling his drawings to various
magazines by 1864 when he was just 20 years old. During adulthood, Coolidge tried his hand
at many different professions, including sign painting, banking, pharmacy, and newspaper
publishing. However, his true passion was for art, and
he soon developed a career as an in-demand illustrator, especially for children’s books
featuring funny animals. According to art historians, Coolidge developed
what are now called comic foregrounds, the cartoon murals seen at carnivals that people
can stick their heads into for a funny photo opportunity. So the ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ series, it is
unknown where Coolidge got his idea for his first poker dogs painting, ‘Poker Game’ in
1894. However, the image’s composition is thought
to have been inspired by works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Georges de La Tour,
and Paul Cézanne, who all had their own depictions of a card game scene, albeit with humans as
the subjects rather than dogs. Some have often compared Coolidge’s ‘A Friend
in Need’ with English artist Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting ‘Laying Down the Law’ from 1840. Both feature dogs gathered around pensively,
acting like people—card-players in Coolidge’s work and lawyers in Landseer’s. However, Coolidge’s paintings portray a much
lighter and comical spirit, compared to Landseer’s more serious, solemn tone. It wasn’t until almost a decade after the
first poker dog painting that Coolidge was commissioned by Brown & Bigelow, the sixteen
piece series includes depictions of groups of dogs in all sorts of humanistic scenarios,
including a football game, a road trip, and even a jester performing for a royal couple. The artworks were originally used for promotional
posters, calendars, and prints to advertise cigars. The calendars in particular proved to be popular
nationwide, and Coolidge’s art found its way into millions of homes. [End credit music]

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