I can't be the only one who's stared at "Dogs Playing Poker" wondering what the artist was thinking (or drinking, smoking, etc.) when he dreamed up this crazy, but fun, image.
Exhibit A: "A Friend in Need" (part of "Dogs Playing Poker" series)
Who doesn't love the bulldog passing his friend the ace? Pure unadulterated American kitch!
Or is it???! I will call this painting Exhibit A.
I ask you now to consider Exhibit B, below.
Exhibit B: Apes and cat playing poker (well, cards--there was no poker yet)
Exhibit B was created by Anonymous in London 1646.
Now, compare the two pieces carefully. Some differences...monkeys and cats, not dogs. A trumping card game, not poker. Some odd verse under the second one.
But otherwise, Exhibit A and B are exactly the same, right? Both feature animals smoking, drinking, and, well, playing cards. An ace is prominent in both. Clearly, Coolidge's twentieth century collection was inspired by the seventeenth-century piece.
No, I kid!
When I came across Anonymous' (1646) woodcut, I was just struck by the superficial similarities to the more famous paintings. Actually, as you might surmise, since these two pieces had entirely different purposes and images, that it's rather silly to compare them.
But I will anyway...
As the story goes, C.M. Coolidge was commissioned by an advertising firm, Browne and Bigelow, in 1903 to create the iconic series of oil paintings, collectively called "Dogs Playing Poker." The purpose was to sell cigars. (In Exhibit A, after the viewer takes in the ace, his or her eye will also be drawn to the smoking pipe just behind it).
On the other hand, the Thomason Tracts catalog says the woodcut in Exhibit B is "An engraving representing a monkey and a cat playing at cards; with descriptive verses denouncing card-playing." The text underneath the image reads:
"Puss my aple gainst thy mouse Ile lay
The gam's mine ifth aft n'er a trump to play.
Mister apes face tart deceived in mee
I have many trumpsters one dost see.
For a pint of wine the drawer call
I come o prittie d'ye see this squall
Apes and catts to play at cards are fitt
Men and women ought to have more witt."
Basically, Anonymous was taking a good Puritan stance against card playing; after all, Cromwell's Parliament had banned all gambling and gaming by the mid-seventeenth century. And nothing depicts moral decay and mental decline more readily than apes and a cat playing cards.
So maybe the two pieces had different--okay, completely opposite--messages. Or-r-r-r, maybe we've hit on the secret seventeenth-century Puritanical origins of "Dogs Playing Poker."
What do you think? You tell me!
(And just because these are so much fun, I'll leave you with "Pinched with Four Aces" to ponder. Discuss amongst yourselves!)
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.
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