Poker Playing Dogs


Last time, I said I wanted to find an artist with a relatively happy life story. Well, I didn’t have to look too far to find one. Well, actually, I did have to go far – across the Atlantic to that far away land of the… [insert desired synonym here]. Luckily for me, the world is now a much smaller place and I was able to visit America without actually getting out of bed.

Meet Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, or ‘Cash’ to his friends… This guy was a proper jack of all trades, and I think gave a pretty successful crack at the whole land of opportunity thing.

Farm boy, Cash, was born in 1844, into an abolitionist family who lived between the towns Philadelphia and Antwerp in New York. Most of his youth was spend wandering between the two towns, and in time he’d make a nice (if not modest) mark on the towns. He studied in the Antwerp Liberal Literary Institute, although what he studied I’m not sure, and at some point after this he also took courses at Eastmans College. At Eastmans he learned a bit about banking and maths, whilst keeping books for the local bank. Along with some additional self tutoring, he gained the necessary skills to found the very first bank in Antwerp in 1871/2. The same sort of time he also founded a newspaper, called the Antwerp News. He also bought a drug store with his brother in New York. Most of these little ventures were ill fated though, as both the shop and the newspaper went out of business relatively quickly. It’s also interesting to know, that this wasn’t the first drug store that he owned – in 1865/6 he worked at one which he bought and again, quickly lost.

During this time, he also did a mass of other handyman jobs before going away to Europe in 1873. After his return, he moved to Rochester in New York and began writing columns based on his travel for the Watertown Times. It’s very likely that he illustrated these articles also.
It’s in the mid 1870’s that he began to work as an illustrator for local tobacco companies. And guess what he was drawing? Doggys! Hooray!! He was also commissioned by Harper’s Weekly to draw this:

Injured Innocence

Cash managed to make a good living drawing caricatures of people quickly, back when this was a new thing. He also created those pictures with holes for the heads in! You know the ones we’re all ashamed to admit we love. Anyway, that was Cash’s idea, and they’re actually called Comic Foregrounds. He was patented for these and Comic Foregrounds went into production.

In 1889 the bank that Cash had set up in Antwerp sold to a certain John D. Ellis (who also commissioned Cash to do a self portrait). The bank changed its name to the Jefferson Bank, but otherwise stayed put.

A few years later was when Cash’s artistic career really paid off. He was hired by the company Brown & Bigelow for his dog pictures. Apparently in the early 1900’s he was paid $10,000 for 2 paintings. Another 14 paintings followed this.

A friend in need

The paintings themselves depict (albeit in an abstracted manner) the social life of the middle classes in 1900’s America. Many people have commented on the lack of female dogs in his pictures (or the fact they’re mostly serving the males when they do appear), saying that Cash was depicting a male centric world. Perhaps by doing this and using dogs rather than people Cash was satirising society of the time? It’s possible, but perhaps not excessively likely, as most people seem to think that he was simply portraying the sort of activities (poker, drinking,smoking, swearing, talking about boobs, etc) that girls don’t like to get involved with. Even his daughter is quoted as having said; ‘girls don’t like things like that. It was for boys and men.’

So, I guess the 1900’s America were pretty different to 2012 Britain, but I think most of my girl friends would be rather put out if I didn’t invite them to play poker, drink beer and talk about boobs… Maybe I just hang out with the wrong type of girls…or the right kind!

Anyway, other fun things cash did was illustrating two books for his cousin. Writing, producing and designing an opera! (I know, right?) and writing a few comedies.

Comic foregrounds

At the tender age of 64 he married a 29 year old called Gertrude (who he’d previously employed as a letter painter on his Comic Foregrounds business), and had a daughter. He moved to Brooklyn where he tried to raise Chickens, but soon gave up. He also fell out of a window and injured his knee. The injury stayed with him for the rest of his life.

in about 1916, people realised that caricatures are a bit rubbish, so the demand for these fell. To keep the money coming in Gertrude went to work. Cash, then stayed at home and did chores (which was very rare, because most men at the time just played poker, drank beer and talked about… you get the idea). In 1928 they built a new house on Staten Island.

In 1934 at the age of about 90 Cash died and was buried in his old home town Antwerp. Later, in 1977 Gertrude was buried next to him.

There, isn’t that nice. A proper American tale of commercial success and the American dream come true. Sure, Cash’s art isn’t something I would describe as pivotal, intellectual or even particularly good. But it is something that everyone recognises and enjoys. It’s also something he did without any formal training, simply to earn his living.

Next time on Sketches, Scratches and Scattered Thoughts: Van Gogh


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