Wednesday, June 7, 2006
Setting the record straight about an American icon in the art world: Cassius Coolidge's lovable dogs playing poker
In a column last week, I suggested the iconic series of paintings by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge was about to be eclipsed by a new wave of more sophisticated, contemporary poker art.
He was gracious and polite about it, but reader Vince DeMarco set me straight.
Then again, DeMarco does have a dog in this fight.
DeMarco, a five-year resident of Las Vegas, serves as the licensing agent for images based on Coolidge's artwork, which includes dogs not only playing poker but also shooting pool, waltzing in a ballroom and watching a horse race with binoculars.
Through his company DeMarco Productions, DeMarco has been licensing the artist's work since 1995, when he reached an agreement with Coolidge's daughter, Marcella Coolidge.
"We handle licensing for the entire known Coolidge portfolio," DeMarco said. "These are very popular, very marketable images."
Samples of Coolidge's work -- which includes the celebrated dogs and a lesser known series featuring a "mosquito band" -- along with licensing information, can be found on DeMarco's Web site, coolidgedogsexpress.com.
Probably because of incessant parodies or because the poker-playing dogs are inextricably linked to calendars, novelty neckties and wood-paneled recreation rooms, Coolidge's art is sometimes dismissed as kitsch.
Coolidge produced 16 oil paintings of dogs in various settings, mostly in the 1920s, and nine of them featured poker scenes. Yet in the public lexicon, the paintings are usually referred to in shorthand simply as "Dogs Playing Poker."
DeMarco is not the only observer who believes that is unfair, or that Coolidge's work is underappreciated.
Journalist Dan Barry, in a 2002 New York Times article, wrote that he considers calling Coolidge's paintings "Dogs Playing Poker" an insult on par with referring to a Van Gogh self-portrait as "Guy Missing an Ear."
Art collectors evidently are beginning to appreciate Coolidge. Last year, two original Coolidge paintings of dogs playing poker (lowercase) sold for $590,400 at a New York City auction house to an anonymous buyer.
The titles of those pieces were "A Bold Bluff" and "Waterloo." They portray a St. Bernard winning a big pot by apparently bluffing with a weak hand. Coolidge's most famous work, the one most often called "Dogs Playing Poker," is titled "A Friend in Need." It shows a small dog surreptitiously slipping an ace to his partner, another small dog, as their five opponents -- all larger dogs -- remain oblivious.
DeMarco, who is hoping to forge a partnership with a graphic artist to produce new, high-resolution versions of the Coolidge pieces, has been interested in the poker-playing dogs for more than 30 years. While living in San Diego in 1971, he met Marcella Coolidge through her husband, a business associate of DeMarco at the time.
"She showed me the portfolio, which she had since the 1930s," DeMarco said. "I asked if she was interested in selling the rights to it, but she said no."
They remained in touch, and in 1995 Marcella Coolidge agreed to sell the rights to the portfolio, DeMarco said.
"What's interesting is that her father married late in life, at (about) 65, so she never saw her father when he was a young man," DeMarco said.
Coolidge, who was born in upstate New York, died in 1934 in Staten Island at age 89. According to Barry's New York Times story, his obituary stated that he "painted many pictures of dogs" in his lifetime.
Coolidge was also a banker, a newspaperman and -- solidifying once and for all his status as a man of vision -- he was credited with inventing those life-size cartoon placards you see at boardwalks and carnivals that you can stick your head through so it looks like you're a bodybuilder, or a hula dancer, or in some exotic scene.
Las Vegas Sun, June 7, 2006