The 1894 painting Poker Game by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge was the original version of a series of works, collectively titled Dogs Playing Poker, that entered the hearts and minds of America, despite scorn and mocking from the art world that continues to this day.
Looking for a new way to advertise cigars, marketing agency Brown and Bigelow discovered the rising popularity of the 1894 work and sensed a zeitgeist. They commissioned Cassius for a series of 16 further oil pantings around the theme of dogs playing poker. The most famous of these, and the one most commonly referenced in popular culture to embody the theme as it’s title, was actually called A Friend in Need, unleashed in 1903. It shows two dogs cheating at the card game by slyly passing a card under the table between them, unbeknownst to their fellow canine players.
All the paintings in the series personify a human trait or emotion reflected in the individual titles, and it is their warmth and simple honesty that made them so popular. They reveal a common psychological need in the human consciousness to anthropomorphise animals or even objects to help explain or justify the world around us. Most importantly, they made people laugh.
The derision heaped on the works is balanced by the love many feel for them. They represent an unfortunate class divide in American culture. The appearance of the print in many homes was a sign of status. Only the lower working class families would enjoy such a kitsch work, lacking the intelligence necessary to enjoy the finer beauty only the rich upper classes could appreciate. More likely, the reverse is true, snobbery prevents many from a pure enjoyment of the casual humour and gentle understanding portrayed by Cassius.
A pithy exchange from Preston Sturges’ 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels springs to mind. Director Joel McCrea wonders if his artistic genius would better service mankind by creating dramatic masterpieces than the successful populist comedies that have made him rich. Veronica Lake’s succinct reply cuts through his pomposity with one word. No.
Art is all-encompassing in it’s richness and diversity. It can inform, expand, shock and inspire the human consciousness, but sometimes it can be just as powerfully used to simply entertain us. Amidst the multitude of horrors people face on a regular basis, a smile raised at a picture of dogs playing poker can help many get through the day, making these works as priceless as the finest Picasso, Van Gogh or Rembrandt.
The original 1894 work was sold at auction by Sotheby’s, New York for $658,000, a sum underlining the lasting affection still held for the series, in the face of a jeering establishment.
There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. – Sullivan’s Travels