The history of poker goes back as far as the early 1800’s. It became synonymous with the old west and eventually made its way to Las Vegas, spreading throughout America when the World Series of Poker kicked off in 1970. The popularity of poker has seen exponential growth with every passing decade. As part of a widespread culture, it comes as little surprise that poker artwork has become a prevalent form of illustration.
When we think of poker artwork, most of us immediately draw to mind the classic paintings of cigar-smoking canines, seated around a green felted table playing cards. Cassius Coolidge (a.k.a. Cash, 1844-1934) was famous for his “dogs playing poker” artwork.
These exceptional masterpieces came about when an advertising firm in Minnesota, Brown & Bigelow, contracted Coolidge to produce a series of sixteen paintings depicting dogs personified by typical human activities to help promote a cigar company. When he finished the sixteen paintings, nine of them were distinctive arrangements of dogs playing poker. These original masterpieces have become so beloved that when two of them, Waterloo and A Bold Bluff, went up for auction in New York in 2005, they were estimated to bring in $30,000-$50,000, but instead sold for a staggering $590,400.
Many of Cassius’s anthropomorphic poker artwork was highly comical in nature. A Friend in Need portrays a full table of card playing dogs where the English Bulldog in front is surreptitiously passing an Ace of clubs between his hind-leg toes to the neighboring pup, who already possess the other three Aces in the deck. His painting Poker Sympathy reveals a backroom poker table where four canine officers have just walked in on an illegal game. It just so happens an English Bulldog (Coolidge may have had a soft spot in his heart for this particular breed) had just laid down four aces to scoop a rather impressive pot, while the collie to his right attempts to slink away from the table without attracting the attention of the police dogs.
Famed American artist Arthur Sarnoff continued the tradition of anthropomorphic dog art by painting several analogous canvases, but only a few of them were poker related works of art. Sarnoff is more famous for his extensive spin-off on Coolidge’s Kelly Pool painting, one of dogs playing pool.
A plethora of parody paintings were produced, dubbed “Gods Playing Poker”, simply reversing the word “Dog”. One such print depicts Jesus and Vishnu smoking cigarettes, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh eyeing up a bowl of peanuts, a firy headed Muhammad shrewdly studying his cards and Buddha laughing it up as he holds the worst hand in Texas Hold’em, 2-7 off-suit. Interestingly enough, a frame of Coolidge’s A Bold Bluff hangs on the wall in the background.
To this day, there are countless aficionados who collect poker artwork; not just dogs playing poker, but everything from a four piece canvas set depicting a royal flush in spades, to a black and white facsimile of poker chips iced with hundred dollar bills. There is a certain mystique about the game of poker – the ostensible 6th-sense level of skill possessed by its most successful contenders, the ebb and flow of excitement with the big win, sorrow with the worst of bad beats – that only serves to propagate the popularity of poker artwork.