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Inside the Enduring Legacy of Dogs Playing Poker

"Poker Game" by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

Bidding on art is one of the most exciting aspects of the industry, as it involves the deep appreciation a person has for an artwork or the artist who poured their heart into it. Whether it's bidding at your local gallery or online at Artsy, this process is a huge factor in forming a painting's prestige. And the auction house that is the most prominent of them all is Sotheby's.

From selling paintings of the impressionist master Claude Monet to auctioning edgy pieces by Banksy, Sotheby's is synonymous with status in the art world. In fact, CNN reported that its London branch auctioned off an oil painting by Banksy for a record-breaking $12 million earlier this year.

Despite this, there's a certain piece that was sold by the prestigious auction house that made headlines in recent years for simply not being from the same mold as the aforementioned — and we're talking about none other than the oil painting "Poker Game" by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge. The polarizing piece depicts four dogs in an intense poker match, purchased for an impressive $658,000 at Sotheby's New York. Coolidge's painting has been widely criticized by the elite of the art world; yet, its unique meaning and undeniable popularity are a testament to why it's indeed a masterpiece.

"A Friend in Need" by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

Of Paws and Poker Cards

Completed in 1894, "Poker Game" is the first painting in a series of oil paintings crafted by Coolidge called "Dogs Playing Poker." All sixteen of them evoke a sense of humor that can be credited to his past as a cartoonist, as the paintings depict canines passionately involved in either a poker match or other human activities.

While its humorous nature is one that you can't find in serious masterpieces like those of da Vinci or Rembrandt, the series has the wonderful ability of easily connecting with people thanks to the honest emotions portrayed by the dogs.

Case in point, one of the paintings in the series, "A Friend in Need", shows two dogs in a moment of human weakness as the bulldog here helps his friend cheat in the game. As he sneakily holds out a card in his paw underneath the table, the dog's face is stoic and unreadable, in contrast to the other players at the table. Coolidge leans on the psychological aspect of the game in this painting, as partypoker notes how poker is primarily a mind game, and emotional discipline is something that seasoned players have mastered. Whether it’s masking your feelings when you’re about to win hand or, in this case, helping out a friend in need, controlling your emotions can be just as important as the actual cards. The emotional discipline, or lack thereof, that is seen in the different dogs in the painting, is what makes it visually interesting because viewers can see themselves and their all-too-human feelings on the faces of the anthropomorphic dogs. This is why "Dogs Playing Poker" is so special, as Coolidge's storytelling of life's intricacies speaks to humans through these adorable canines — and dogs, after all, are man's best friend.

"A Waterloo" by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

Imprinting a Legacy

After Coolidge signed with the advertising firm Brown & Bigelow, the paintings were used as promotional material for tobacco companies as cigar covers, posters, and calendars — pushing the images into the mainstream. However, the "Dogs Playing Poker" series cemented its place in pop culture during the '70s. Not only was kitsch art a hit among the public, poker itself saw a surge of popularity in America in this decade as well. These two coinciding trends paved the way for the inclusion of these paintings into the homes of millions of Americans.

Jon McNaughton

The Frederick News-Post

And the legacy that Coolidge left behind of dogs humorously and realistically playing poker stays strong today, as many artists have since created their own reiterations of his work. Jon McNaughton, a political painter, used the artworks as inspiration for his perspective of the 2019 Democratic Party presidential primary debates. Meanwhile, Deborah Mansfield created a mural based on them to help raise funds for an animal shelter.

While the series' status as a masterpiece is still up for debate in the art world, it's undeniable that the "Dogs Playing Poker" series has left an enduring legacy for the American public to enjoy.

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