When you see the words ‘Dogs playing poker’, what comes to mind? It’s probably a very specific image, something like this:
Where exactly does this image come from? Well, first of all this iconic imagery is the result of not one, but 18 different paintings, all done by the same man? It sure is.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the history behind this image, (or even the game of poker itself!), you’ve likely seen this image, or a recreation of it—The poker-playing dog’s have been parodied in pop culture like Family Guy, Looney Tunes, and one of three pictures one the cover of Rush’s 1981 album, Moving Pictures.
Known simply as ‘Dogs Playing Poker’, this name actually refers to all three famous iterations of this famous painting – So how did not one, but nearly 18 paintings of dogs playing poker become so beloved? Why dogs? Why poker, and not blackjack, or even crazy 8’s? Let’s find out.
Poker Game, 1894 by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge
The first iteration of this imagery, an oil painting called ‘Poker Game’ was painted by a guy named Cassius Marcellus Coolidge in 1894.
Coolidge tried a few jobs, like banking and publishing before deciding to practice art, his true passion, and became a children’s book illustrator.
An interesting aspect of his first painting is found on the left-hand side—A dog holds a four of a kind in his
hand paw, which is a hand of cards that has four cards with the same rank (number), and one other card. This is a great hand to have in poker!
Some people think this painting (among being a playful subject) is meant to show the excitement of sharing your (hopefully) winning hand with your opponents, and playing poker in general.
Known for painting surreal, kitschy subjects, Coolidge was apparently inspired to create his first image of gambling dogs from various famous paintings depicting humans playing cards—For example, paintings by Caravaggio, and this one by Paul Cezzane:
Fun fact: This painting (the original!) sold for $658,000 in 2015 at an auction.
Dogs Playing Poker, The Series
Nearly 10 years later, in the early 1900’s, Brown & Bigelow, an advertising firm hired Coolidge to produce oil paintings for their advertisements with a similar ‘fun’ theme.
The paintings show the dogs enjoying a bunch of different positions and activities, like taking a road trip and playing a game of football – But obviously, poker proved to be the most popular activity these dogs partake in. Unlike his original work that used this theme, these were commissioned for advertising and largely used in calendars, cigar advertisements, and decoration.
Although many of these paintings (which all featured dogs) showed them doing range of activities, poker was definitely the most popular with 9 out of 16 paintings using poker as the game or activity of choice.
These were the titles of the 16 various canine-themed paintings:
A Bold Bluff
A Friend in Need
His Station and Four AcesPinched with Four Aces
Sitting up with a Sick Friend
Stranger in Camp
A Bachelor’s Dog
Ten Miles to a Garage
Breach of Promise Suit
New Year’s Eve in Dogville
One to Tie Two to Win
Riding the Goat
Eventually, people liked these advertisements so much they put the prints in their home. You might think 16 paintings would be enough, but a third painting with poker-playing dogs would also rise in popularity…
Looks Like Four of a Kind, or Even More Dogs Playing Poker in 1910
Coolidge wasn’t done—He had one more oil painting of card-playing dogs in him. His final (known) painting shows dogs playing poker, and is titled ‘Looks Like Four of a Kind’.
There isn’t much to note about what Coolidge’s drive was to create just one more dog-themed/poker painting, but obviously the third time’s a charm.
Did Coolidge play poker himself? The jury’s out on that one—But one thing’s for sure, he definitely had a knack for painting the game and creating iconic images.
Although we couldn’t unearth any evidence of Coolidge’s poker habits, we did not an interesting thing about his name—His nickname was ‘Cash’ and he often signed his name using this moniker, or as ‘Kash Koolidge’.
Even if his nickname isn’t a hint, maybe, just maybe, this famous artist liked to gamble and win cold-hard cash at the poker table—He certainly chose poker over other table games like blackjack or craps.
So, why poker? That’s something we can’t definitively find, but it’s clear that whether or not Coolidge was a fan of actually playing poker, he was certainly good at painting it.