‘‘If popularity were a true measure of worth,” a reporter for the New York Daily News wrote just prior to a 2005 auction featuring a pair of paintings by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, “then the two paintings being auctioned off Tuesday would be worth millions.” It turned out that the artworks’ popularity was a truer-than-expected measure of worth. As senior editor Sheila Gibson Stoodley notes in “Best in Show” (page 80), the paintings, A Bold Bluff and Waterloo, together sold for nearly $600,000, far more than the auction house’s estimated price of $30,000 to $50,000.
Considering that this is the Car of the Year issue, Coolidge and his artistic merits perhaps would be a more relevant topic of coverage if he had depicted dogs that, instead of playing poker, drove Bentleys, or at least chased them. But, as Gibson Stoodley points out, two prominent auction houses—Doyle and Bonhams—are conducting sales of canine-themed art in February in New York, which, not coincidentally, also is hosting concurrently the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.
Coolidge, who was born in 1844 in upstate New York and named after the Kentucky antebellum, antislavery activist Cassius Marcellus Clay, would appreciate the timing of the auctions. For in addition to being a painter of anthropomorphic dogs, he also was a serial entrepreneur. He founded a bank and a newspaper, and he owned a couple of drug stores, though none of those ventures generated any substantial returns. Coolidge was also a Renaissance man, albeit of a lowbrow order: Before he began specializing in canine art, he was a cartoonist, and he wrote a comic opera (which was produced) about a mosquito epidemic in New Jersey. Later he invented comic foregrounds, the life-size renderings that enable carnival-goers to place their faces in cutouts over the bodies of musclemen, bathing beauties, and other cartoon characters. The mail-order business that he established to sell these items did prove lucrative.
In 1903, Coolidge began a relationship with the St. Paul, Minn., advertising firm Brown & Bigelow that also was bountiful. For a fee of $10,000, he painted the first two of what would be a series of 16 dog-oriented artworks. With these images, Brown & Bigelow adorned calendars that its client companies gave away to their customers. Nine of the paintings featured the poker-playing dogs, and the seven others depicted pooches performing a variety of human activities, from dancing to playing baseball.
The idea that two of these paintings could fetch as much as they did at auction two years ago seemed unfathomable to some. A writer for London’s Sun newspaper declared, “A barking mad punter has splashed out almost £300,000 on a pair of cheesy paintings showing dogs playing poker.”
In 2004, a year before the record-setting sale, the Sands Casino in Las Vegas did little to enhance the credibility of Coolidge’s work, when, as part of a promotional campaign, it used live dogs to re-create one of his paintings. (The dogs played blackjack, not poker, and at least two did not play very well, requesting cards, by barking, while holding hands of 18 and 19, respectively.)
Among art critics, Coolidge’s detractors are legion, but he has his defenders, including a New York Times writer who argued, maybe facetiously, that to refer to A Friend in Need as the anonymous “Dogs Playing Poker” is tantamount to calling one of van Gogh’s self-portraits “Guy Missing an Ear.”
Coolidge’s paintings have been interpreted as satires on middle-class, male entertainment; as commentaries on sexual politics in the same vein as Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire; as derivations of the card-playing humans painted by Caravaggio, de La Tour, and Cezanne; and as metaphors for World War II—the dog smoking the cigar is Churchill. (Coolidge certainly did not intend for the latter interpretation: He created the painting before the start of World War I, and he died, at age 89, in 1934.)
Like many artists, Coolidge died before he was fully appreciated—and derided—for his work. Although the images of the poker-playing dogs were widely circulated, their creator remained relatively anonymous throughout his life and for decades after his death. In fact, the obituary for the newspaper in Staten Island, Coolidge’s final place of residence, made only a passing reference to his art, saying that he painted many pictures of dogs. As late as 1973, a writer for American Heritage authored a story on Coolidge after coming upon two of his original works at an antiques shop. No story for the magazine generated more feedback from readers, all of whom knew the paintings but were unfamiliar with the painter. Thirty years later, the writer recalled how she liked the paintings but resisted purchasing them because they seemed too expensive. They were priced at $300 apiece.