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The Paintings

Quite an impressive resume for Cash, and the sections discussing his most lasting gifts, the paintings of dogs playing poker, is just beginning. Coolidge first began his career as a professional artist by creating artwork for local cigar companies that used his paintings for “lithographed box covers or inner box lids.” Although his most famous paintings are those with dogs in them, Cassius also created many other works. He painted a poster for the Columbia Bicycle Company of Massachusetts around 1895. It shows a monkey riding a bicycle with a parrot on the handlebars. This poster hung in showrooms for Columbia Bicycles. He also drew a sketch of a wide-eyed child titled Injured Innocence which appeared in the February 9, 1878 edition of Harper’s Weekly. I am no art critic nor historian, so I am not totally sure what the sketch is trying to convey. At first, it seems that the drawing appears to call for better treatment of African Americans. The white man in the sketch has accused an African American child of stealing chickens, and the boy retorts that he does not have any chickens and should be treated with more respect. But when the boy’s hat is examined, there are three birds in it. I am not sure if these are the aforementioned chickens or not. Judging by his parents being abolitionists, it would seem that Cassius would be sympathetic to the suffering of blacks.

In the mid 1870s he started painting dogs in the situations that for years he had used to depict people. It is not know why he chose to paint dogs in these circumstances. Cash’s daughter agreed with his decisions to use dogs though. “You can’t imagine a cat playing poker…it doesn’t seem to go.” His break, however, came in 1903 when he signed a contract with the advertising company Brown & Bigelow located in St. Paul, Minnesota. Brown & Bigelow was an advertising company that specialized in “remembrance advertising.” This type of advertising consists of a business distributing objects branded with a company name and logo to its loyal customers. Although the details of their contract are unavailable, his daughter records that he was paid $10,000 (in early 1900s money) for two of the paintings. He eventually painted a total of sixteen different paintings of dogs in various situations for Brown & Bigelow. The sixteen paintings that Cash created for Brown & Bigelow are A Bachelor’s Dog, A Bold Bluff, Breach of Promise Suit, A Friend in Need, His Station and Four Aces, New Year’s Eve in Dogsville, One to Tie Two to Win, Pinched with Four Aces, Poker Sympathy, Post Mortem, The Reunion, Riding the Goat, Sitting up with a Sick Friend, Stranger in Camp, Ten Miles to a Garage, and Waterloo. The situations for these paintings ranged from arguing in court to a tea dance. The most popular scene was, of course, at a card table surrounded by alcohol, tobacco, and friends. Nine of the sixteen paintings Coolidge made for Brown & Bigelow contained dogs in that environment. Coolidge preferred large dogs to occupy his paintings. Bulldogs, collies, Great Danes, and St. Bernards were among his favorite canines. His art entered pop culture as hundreds-of-thousands of copies of his paintings were created as “advertising posters, calendars, and printers” and distributed throughout the country.

As a whole Cassius’s paintings encompass the male, middle class lifestyle of the early 1900s. They exhibit a male world, which females do not often enter. In fact, female pooches appear in only a couple of the paintings. During their rare appearances they are mainly serving drinks or interrupting the males. Only in New Year’s Eve in Dogsville do the female canines seem welcome. The dogs are, however, engaged in traditionally masculine actives—“drinking beer, playing cards, smoking cigars.” The dogs capture a male dominated world where the technicalities of how dogs’ paws hold cards or beer bottles can be ignored. Even Cassius’s own daughter, Marcella, recognizes the male dominated aspect of her father’s work. As she put it, “girls don’t like things like that. It was for boys and men.”

Although the paintings share some similarities, each one tells its own story. For example, in perhaps his most famous painting A Friend in Need, Coolidge portrays seven dogs engaged in a late night game of five-card stud that has spilled over into early morning. Surrounded by cards, chips, and beer the bulldog is passing the ace of clubs under the table to a dog, which would then have four aces. It appears the bulldog and his accomplice have been cheating for most of the night. Their piles of chips are quite large, while the other unsuspecting dogs are left only with a couple chips apiece. Cassius also has a high level of detail in this painting. Each dog is highly detailed and seems to have its own personality.

On a side note, Coolidge seems to like the idea of getting four aces. The quite rare poker hand appears in at least four of his paintings: A Friend in Need, His Station and Four Aces, Pinched with Four Aces, and A Stranger in Camp. In A Stranger in Camp, however, the four aces have been beaten by a straight flush. Perhaps a world where it is common for dogs to surround a poker table, the coveted four-ace poker hand also arises more often.

In other paintings Cassius had stories that spanned over several paintings. A Bold Bluff and Waterloo depict the drama of an entire hand of poker. The saga begins in A Bold Bluff where the dogs are in the middle of a poker hand. The dogs have already laid down their bets and are now revealing their hands. The last hand is revealed in Waterloo with the excitement of a dog collecting a big pile of chips from a successful bluff, at the expense of the other dogs’ pride. Unfortunately, I can not continue describing all of Cassius’s famous paintings. My words would not do them justice. Like any art, look at the painting in person for a true appreciation of its beauty and detail.

Other paintings by Coolidge include a scene of people sitting around a poker table called A Poker Game, an excited poker player collecting his winnings called The Winner, Dog Playing the Fiddle, a family of dogs singing around a piano titled A Dog Family, Portrait of a Girl and Her Doll, a sick dog laying in bed named Sick in Bed, a scene of a lion titled A Monarch, two men fishing titled Two Fishermen, and a dog chewing on a book titled Eating His Words. It is not clear whether Coolidge named these paintings, or if they were attached to the paintings when they were sold. Despite this variety in types of paintings, which does include many dogs, perhaps Coolidge was always destined to paint his poker dogs. “His paintings of people look like dogs,” commented Moira Harris, an art historian in St. Paul Minnesota. Predisposition to dogs is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in Coolidge’s case.

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