[Animals were there at the beginning of art. But how did we get from Chauvet to "Dogs Playing Poker" and beyond? That's one of the questions 13.7 will be asking with this month's series, "Ars Animalis"—art of the animals.]
In 1903, the St. Paul-based publishing company Brown & Bigelow commissioned the artist C.M. Coolidge to produce a series of 16 paintings to advertise cigars. Of the 16, nine depict dogs playing poker.
This one, A Bold Bluff (originally titled Judge St. Bernard Stands Pat on Nothing), which shows a St. Bernard making a big bet with a weak hand, and the similar Waterloo, together fetched $590,400 at an auction at Doyle New York in 2005, part of Doyle's annual "Dogs in Art" auction, which coincides with the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
The Dogs Playing Poker series inspired many imitators, most famously a number of paintings of dogs playing not only poker, but pool and craps, created in the 1950s by American illustrator Arthur Sarnoff. Today, the concept remains a lasting meme.
"For some the paintings represent the epitome of kitsch or lowbrow culture, a poor-taste parody of 'genuine' art," writes Martin Harris on PokerNews.com. "For others they stand as cogent, insightful symbols of America's middle class. Many, though, for various reasons, have a genuine fondness for the humorous paintings, which arguably stand among the most well-known depictions of poker in mainstream popular culture."
Coolidge had a knack for creating memes. In addition to his card-playing canines, he also created "comic foregrounds," the faceless, life-sized cutouts of funny characters in which carnival-goers could place their own faces to take photographs of themselves in humorous situations. But a comic foreground using Dogs Playing Poker for actual dogs to stick their heads through? Haven't seen it...yet.
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image: Dogs Playing Poker (A Bold Bluff), 1903, by C.M. Coolidge