A Painting You Certainly Know

And almost certainly love.

Hey, There,

Let me open up by saying that the backend process for this one didn’t go the way I thought it was going to. I expected to have to do a bunch of research, only to find that it’s actually a pretty well-known body of knowledge, leaving me just to tell you the story. Which: relieving, but also kind of disappointing, because ever since the tail end of grad school, I’ve kind of wanted to be the guy who cracked the hidden story of Dogs Playing Poker.

Because stop a second and think about it: isn’t it just wild how culturally ubiquitous that painting is? If you asked me to list paintings that I think the most Americans knew about, it’d be something like Starry Night, the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, Stewart’s portrait of George Washington, and dogs playing poker.* It’s not respected like those other paintings, it’s not revered like those other paintings, but it’s certainly as well-known as those other paintings, and I’d argue that it’s loved (or at least appreciated, if in an ironic way) as much as those other paintings. It’s an amazing thing, but you’d have to work really hard to convince me that Dogs Playing Poker doesn’t somehow strike a chord with the American psyche.

*not treated as a title for reasons we’ll get to in a second.

So let’s get into it! For starters: Dogs Playing Poker is such a brilliant shorthand concept that it’s easy to suspect that it’s just a trope and not one actual, identifiable painting. And while it certainly is a trope, there really is an identifiable painting that acts as the source: Poker Game (1894), painted by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, a journeyman painter-illustrator who stumbled into one hell of a niche. 

By the way, this painting sold for over $650,000 about 5 years ago.

You might look at that and think, “that’s not quite the dogs playing poker painting that I remember. What the hell, Pille? You said this was a painting and not just a trope!” You might think that, if you were fool enough to doubt me; but of course you’re not, because you know I’m about to explain it. And I am! Coolidge’s first, naïve stab at dogs playing poker (such stiff action! So lame how they’re all basically the same dog!) struck such a chord that the advertising company Brown & Bigelow* hired him in 1903 to create an entire series of dogs doing things, most of which were playing poker, for use in advertisements and calendars. From this series, we got A Friend In Need (1903), which I think has supplanted Poker Game in the public consciousness as the dogs playing poker painting:

* of St. Paul, MN, so please note, my fellow Twin Citizens: we kind of live in Dogs Playing Poker Ground Zero.

Looking at A Friend, it’s easy to see why it supplanted Poker Game as the crucial dogs playing poker painting. It’s got a great narrative! Those sneaky bully breeds in the foreground are cheating! It’s also just got a lot more visual variety than Poker Game, with a slightly more dynamic composition and a wide variety of dog types and emotional states (and also, check out all of the drinks by the brown and white dog dead center: he’s clearly shitfaced). Poker Game, by contrast, is really kind of boring, beyond the basic fact that it does indeed have dogs playing poker. Which, let’s be clear, is still a lot; dogs are terrible liars, and could never keep a poker face.

Aside from A Friend in Need, Coolidge’s Brown & Bigelow series includes a few lesser dog poker works, like A Waterloo (1906):

Actually, the more I look at this one, it might be my favorite.

And His Station and Four Aces (1903):

As well as dogs doing other things, like being inducted into the Masons:

Riding the Goat, early 1900s

…and playing pool:

Kelly Pool, 1909

Coolidge is generally credited with inventing the idea of painting dogs who play poker (among people who bother to attribute the idea to anyone, that is), but he does have some forebears. Sir Edwin Landseer’s Trial By Jury (1840) shows dogs doing lawyer shit, but I think we can all agree that this is significantly less fun than dogs playing poker (Landseer also was probably trying to insult some specific people, again much less fun than showing a bulldog cheating at cards).

Coolidge’s excellent dogs paintings are also (probably) the spiritual ancestors of the execrable work of Andy Thomas, a hack who paints groups of Democratic or Republican presidents playing poker or having a beer and shooting the shit.

I first came across Thomas’ work when I somehow wound up on the mailing list for a catalog that sold tacky stuff for senior citizens; prints of his paintings were listed a few pages away from this novelty soap that you can have sex with:

Classy, there, Thomas. Thanks proving that there’s nothing so fun and pure that some butthead won’t come along and ruin it.

Right on. Go forth and, in these tough times, be there for your friends like the bulldog in A Friend In Need.


RECOMMENDATION

OK, so we’re all hunkering down for a while, and could drastically use something to comfort-watch to take our minds off of things. Might I suggest The Great Pottery Throwdown? It’s a BBC production, and I’m not sure if it’s officially available in the US, but we’ve been watching it on YouTube (I won’t link because I don’t know how stable the links will be, but trust me, if you search, you’ll find it). It’s kind of a hybrid between The Great British Baking Show and Project Runway in terms of content and tone; it’s absorbing and fun while being low-stakes. And one of the judges, Keith Brymer Jones, is just kind of an amazing TV presence; imagine the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones in a transporter accident with Richard Kind, and throw in an almost unimaginable level of caring about pottery. It’s something.


SOME LINKS

Probably not a good idea to go to any shows for a while, but here’s a complete recording of Sleater-Kinney’s barn-burner of a show in St. Paul last October:

Or if you’re feeling braver, here’s a complete show by Bowie’s much-maligned late-80s/early 90s art-rock band Tin Machine:


CLOSING STUFF

OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!