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The Story Behind the Famous “Dogs Playing Poker” Painting

Home » The Story Behind the Famous “Dogs Playing Poker” Painting

The Story Behind the Famous “Dogs Playing Poker” Painting

There are a few things quintessentially “poker” — Las Vegas, the “poker face,” and, of course, the iconic painting of a group of dogs smoking cigars and playing poker. But have you ever stopped to think about where this painting came from and what made it so very famous?

Whether you play online poker, casual poker with friends, or don’t play at all, chances are you’ve come across this famous painting at some point. What may surprise you is that the painting in your mind may not even be the same for every reader. Why? Because “Dogs Playing Poker” refers not to one painting alone, but to a series of artworks.

Now that your interest has been sparked, take a look at the story behind this famous collection of paintings. 

Inspiration for the Collection

Cassius Marcellus Coolidge painted “Poker Game,” an oil painting featuring four bespectacled Saint Bernards sitting around a poker table, drinking whiskey, smoking cigars, and, of course, playing poker. It was painted in 1894 and was the first of a series of 18 paintings, 10 of which featured anthropomorphized dogs playing poker. 

“Poker Game” was self-standing for almost ten years, at which time Brown & Bigelow, a Minnesota-based publishing company, commissioned Coolidge to create 16 oil paintings to advertise cigars. Nine of the commissioned works depicted dogs playing poker, while the other seven featured dogs enjoying other distinctly human activities such as ballroom dancing, reading the mail and watching a football game. The final piece, “Looks Like Four of a Kind,” was painted in 1910, bringing Coolidge’s total number of artworks to 18.

Other famous works in the collection include “A Bold Bluff,” “Station and Four Aces,” “Poker Sympathy,” “Sitting up with a Sick Friend,” “Waterloo,” and “New Year’s Eve in Dogville,” among others. These artworks were used for promotional posters, calendars (which became particularly popular) and prints to advertise cigars and were thus designed to appeal to a range of buyers. Characterized by a discreet sense of humor, Coolidge managed to find his works in millions of homes nationwide.

About the Paintings

A dog’s paw on a green table with playing cards.

The “Dogs Playing Poker” series displayed several dogs (many of which were Saint Bernards, as per the original) with expressive faces, smoking pipes, whiskey glasses, playing cards and poker chips. With human-like features, each dog was made to represent the various characters you may find when playing poker games online or in person. 

The most famous of the collection is the 1903 painting “A Friend in Need,” showcasing a casual game of poker between friends and a bulldog slipping an Ace to his partner. The painting was endlessly reproduced in calendars (proving to be massively successful) and became etched in American pop culture for generations. Though the original has never been up for sale, it is thought to be worth millions of dollars, with less popular works selling for up to $590,400.

The controversy is that, despite their incredible success, these paintings were harshly criticized by art critics and never considered genuine art because they were originally intended for advertising purposes.

The Most Famous American Artist You’ve Never Heard of

Despite having had no formal training, Coolidge had a talent for creating playful and surreal illustrations, which he sold to various magazines. Born in 1844, the young artist tried a number of careers before achieving the success he later became known for. From sign painting and newspaper publishing to banking and working in a pharmacy, Coolidge was able to develop a career from his passion and became an in-demand illustrator.

While now considered iconic, Coolidge (who often signed his works as “Kash Koolidge”) remained largely unknown and has been said to be “the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of.” According to art historians, Coolidge was the developer of what are now known as “comic foregrounds” — the inspiration for the cartoon murals at carnivals people stick their heads into to take funny photos.

The Legacy of Dogs Playing Poker

While it’s said that these paintings were modeled on the compositions of works by artists such as Cézanne, Caravaggio and Georges de La Tour, the jury is still mixed regarding their legitimacy in the art world. While the line between art and pop culture remains blurry, the success of the Dogs Playing Poker collection is indisputable. 

Despite being widely regarded as simply “one of those funny dog paintings” and not a “serious” work of art, “Poker Game” was still sold for $658,000 in 2015. The collection has since become a classic yet kitsch decoration, having been repeatedly reproduced, modified and referenced. References to the paintings have shown up in Snoop Dogg music videos, in the Disney Pixar film “Up,” and in numerous TV shows, songs and plays. In fact, Brown & Bigelow continues to sell Coolidge prints online to this day, so you can buy the “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings at a price that won’t break the bank.

The World of Famous Poker and Casino-Themed Artworks

There has been a long-standing relationship between art and gambling. This isn’t much of a surprise considering that gambling is one of the world’s most popular pastimes. And, with the rise of the online casino industry, its popularity is only growing and gambling themes are transcending the gaming space and influencing various facets of people’s lives, including movies, music and, of course, artwork. 

Casino-themed art doesn’t only refer to the intricate casino paintings adorning the walls of gambling establishments the world over — gambling is one of the most popular themes in a wide variety of artworks, from simple poker drawings or digital art, to tattooed art pieces and some of the most famous artworks in the world. 

So, what other famous casino-themed artworks are there?

“The Cardsharps” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

In this piece, painted in 1594, the modern world gets a look at the gambling scene from so many years ago. It depicts two players who are locked in a card battle, with a third figure sneaking a peek at one player’s hand. With the other player hiding cards behind their back, it’s clear something tricky is going on. Some even think that the third person is secretly helping the sneaky player cheat. It’s not just a clever piece of art — it’s Caravaggio’s first independent masterpiece.

“At the Roulette Table” by Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch might make you think of “The Scream,” but this artist had more up his sleeve. Take “At the Roulette Table,” painted back in 1892. The painting shows a group of people hanging out around a roulette table — some are playing, some are watching, and the excitement is palpable. It’s rumored that during his time in France, Munch was a regular at the Monte Carlo casino, and that’s probably where he got the inspiration for this vibrant artwork.

“Slot Machine Queen” by Shelly Wilkerson

A more recent artwork, painted in 2011, captures a burst of joy on canvas, showing what it feels like to hit the jackpot on a slot machine. As the name suggests, the lady in the painting looks like she is on cloud nine, experiencing the euphoric rush of hitting the jackpot. She sits in glitzy jewelry, flashy red lipstick, and with a cat on her lap, all while sipping champagne. Some people say this painting has a similar feel to “Dogs Playing Cards.” Critics have had their say, some even calling it not-so-great art — but that all depends on your taste. 

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The “Dogs Playing Poker” paintings are as synonymous with poker as Las Vegas and have been famous in pop culture for over a century. What’s the story? Find out.