Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844-1934) was an American painter who did not go to the Royal Academy nor the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but he did paint pictures of dogs playing poker, which is good enough for me.
Don't get me wrong -- I simply adore the refined paintings of the European traditions, but there is something quintessentially American about Coolidge's dogs: humorous, irreverent, and coarse. We should all aspire for such brilliant simplicity. I have assembled some of my favorite works below for your perusal.
A Friend In Need - Perhaps the most famous of Coolidge's paintings, it depicts seven dogs sitting around a table playing poker in the wee morning hours. It derives its name from the bulldog handing an ace under the table to his friend. With that additional ace, the dog with his back to the viewer will have four aces.
Poker Sympathy - The scene looks like it takes place in the corner of a questionable restaurant or club, with pictures of famous dogs that have visited that location lining the walls. In this booth, seven dogs sit across the table facing a bulldog that probably is not part of the regular crowd. During the last round of poker, the pot has grown quite large. The bulldog, thinking he could best the boss, has bet generously, confident in the power of his four aces. When the cards hit the table though, the other dog actually has a straight flush, the only hand able to beat his. The winning dog barks loudly across the table at his vanquished opponent, knocking him off his chair, spilling his drink, and causing him to drop his cards and cigar. The rest of the posse seems to enjoy watching the bulldog's misery.
His Station and Four Aces - The train conductor makes his rounds informing the well dressed passengers that it is time for them to disembark. Unfortunately for one of the dogs, (whose chip pile has become quite small), this means that he will not be able to finish the hand in which he holds four aces. His look of shock and horror is juxtaposed by another canine that has already folded quickly getting up to leave. Outside the train's window, the station's lights and pooches on the boarding platform can be seen.
A Bold Bluff - The Saint Bernard is holding a cigar staring keenly over the chips at the bulldog across the table. All the other dogs study the Saint Bernard trying to determine what is in his hand. We can see that he only has a pair of deuces. Will the bulldog fall for the bluff? A large pile of chips in the middle of the table is at hand. This painting is the first in a series of two, so continue reading to discover the ending...
Waterloo - Here Coolidge depicts the ending to the saga presented in A Bold Bluff. The bulldog did not call the Saint Bernard's keen bluff and his pair of aces won because the other dog folded with at least a pair of jacks.The Saint Bernard has dropped his cigar and is using both paws to collect his big winnings. All the other dogs bark in disgust after seeing the Saint Bernard's cards, spilling a glass of scotch in the process.
Pinched With Four Aces - Four policemen (or police dogs if you will) interrupt some illegal gambling during a card game. The collie in the front of the painting tries to make a quick get away from the smoke filled room, knocking over chips and a glass of an adult beverage in the process. The other dogs stare in disbelief at this intrusion. The bulldog is the one that was dealt four aces, but he will be unable to take advantage of this rare hand.
Kelly Pool - Here the scene changes a bit - cards are replaced by cue sticks. A group of six dogs enjoys themselves around a billiards table playing Kelly Pool. The other five dogs are enthusiastically harassing the shooter, in an effort to help their own standing.
Higher Education - In this very rare print, Coolidge portrays a pack of dogs fighting it out on a football field, which looks oddly like an Elizabethan theater. Although a dog's paw can grip a poker card, it apparently can not carry a football, and the dog uses his mouth to move the pigskin. The
footpawball players are very aggressive. The leading bulldog blocker confronts a dog much bigger than himself. Wrestling and biting is transpiring in the pile of pooches, with no yellow flags in sight. Hopefully those leather helmets are providing protection.
One to Tie, Two to Win - A standing-room only (dogs are even on the roof of the grandstand in the background) crowd of rowdy, cigar smoking pooches cheer on their team as they try to take the win. It is a little remarkable how dogs can grasp a bat (or cards for that matter).
Ten Miles To A Garage - A family of dogs on their way to a summer picnic (perhaps celebrating the 4th of July) experience car trouble on a lonely stretch of country road. They are probably in rural New York, as that is the state of the car's license plate. The young pups frolic about the car wearing bonnets and carrying baskets of food, while most of the older dogs try to repair the automobile. In typical fashion though, only one dog has crawled under the car and is actually working with tools, while three others sit idly by. One is even laying under the car, relaxing in its shade.