Coolidge painted dogs ballroom dancing and playing football and baseball, but it was the one-two punch of canines and poker that’s proven most enduring. This makes sense: Card games, with their inherent tension between what’s seen and what’s unseen, often make for entertaining paintings. In Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps (c. 1595), for instance, a young sucker studies his hand while an experienced con artist signals to his accomplice, who seems to have a few bogus cards sticking out of his back pocket. The sucker doesn’t know he’s being duped, but we do. A similar kind of dramatic irony undergirds Coolidge’s A Bold Bluff (1903), in which a Saint Bernard bets big on a pair of deuces, leaving his opponents to decide whether or not he’s fronting. (In part two of the diptych, Waterloo, completed the same year, the other dogs growl and snarl at the Saint Bernard’s hand—it looks like they picked the wrong time to fold.)
Paintings of card players have long dealt with themes of lies and deceit, and the most famous iteration of Coolidge’s poker-playing dogs series is no exception. Study A Friend in Need closely, and you’ll realize where its title comes from: Unbeknownst to the other players, the bulldog in the foreground is slipping an ace to his partner. The dirty ace hangs mere inches away from the second bulldog’s paw, echoing the outstretched hands in The Creation of Adam (c. 1511) and, just as in Michelangelo’s famous fresco, heightening the suspense.
When Coolidge died in 1934, the obituary in the local paper read, “He painted many pictures of dogs.” And how. Coolidge himself remains all but unknown today, a noble, neglected pioneer in the proud 20th-century tradition of animal art. Meanwhile, his paintings of dogs playing poker routinely go for five or six figures; just a few years ago, one of the earliest installations in the series sold for $658,000 at Sotheby’s. The auction catalogue excerpted a 1973 article from American Heritage: “Coolidge’s poker-faced style is still engaging today … His details of expression, clothing, and furniture are precise. Uncannily, the earnest animals resemble people we all know.” In other words, Sam from Cheers may have been right after all.