What You May Not Know About ‘Dogs at Cards’

BY: Lenka Walldroff
The Thomas Crown Affair was to art history what Indian Jones was to archaeology. Fans of the 1999 remake of the 1968 original starring Steve McQueen will surely recall the scene that takes place soon after the ostensibly victorious Catherine Banning (a red-headed Rene Russo) swans into a New York City police station brandishing a “liberated” Claude Monet painting. For the uninitiated, Ms. Banning stole the painting from Thomas Crown who stole it from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Although in real life, the painting in question, San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk, lives in a museum in Wales. I suppose the movie producers thought Manhattan a more glamorous setting than the Welsh countryside. But I digress.)

    “You have a ghost here…” says the bespectacled Monet specialist. “Another painting underneath.” 

    “Monet reused his canvases,” is Catherine Banning’s response. 

    “Monet’s lost masterpiece,” the specialist quips: “Dogs at Cards.” 

    While Dogs at Cards is its colloquial name, officially the title of the painting is Poker Sympathy. It was one of a series of 16 oil paintings commissioned by the advertising agency of Brown & Bigelow between 1903 and 1915 to sell cigars. And they were painted by a rather extraordinary north country native named Cash Coolidge. 

    I often say that my favorite part of writing this column is that I learn so much about my adopted home. I am always surprised, even after several years of writing, by the famous, creative, and influential people who were born and raised in our little corner of Upstate New York. Perhaps it’s time I break the habit; after all, it’s not terribly flattering to our region. 

    Ironically, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, best known for his anthropomorphic dogs engaged in the human vices of drinking, smoking, gambling and general cavorting, was born to staunch abolitionist Quaker parents in Antwerp, N.Y., in September of 1844. Nathan and Martha Coolidge were successful farmers whose family farm was located on Hoyt Street between the towns of Antwerp and Philadelphia. He was one of five children and named after the Statesman Henry Clay’s brother Cassius Marcellus Clay- a Kentucky politician, planter, and outspoken abolitionist. 

    While records of how he spent his childhood and what education he may have received are rather spotty, we do know that Cassius Coolidge received a certificate from a local business college. Cash, as he was called by friends and family, also took a handful of courses from Eastmans College in Poughkeepsie, NY where he learned bookkeeping, math, and commercial law. He felt his education was sufficient to buy a drug store in 1866 (before losing interest and selling his shares to his partner), and to open a bank, which he did, in 1871 at the age of 27. It was the first bank in Antwerp and he ran it successfully until 1889 when he sold it to John D. Ellis. 

    Cash Coolidge was not the type to let grass grow beneath his feet. He founded Antwerp’s first newspaper, which he simply called the Antwerp News. When the newspaper floundered, his career took various directions: he painted street signs and house numbers, taught penmanship, worked as a school superintendent, and ran a stall at a local market. He tried his hand at farming and maple syrup production, worked for a spell as Antwerp Town Clerk, wrote a travel column for the Watertown Daily Times, and tried his hand as an inventor. 

    While his education and life experience were varied, none of it included any formal art training, beyond a handful of lessons that he purchased from a New York City portrait artist on a visit to Manhattan. It appears that Mr. Coolidge’s artistic talent was largely innate. 

    He eventually found himself making a success of a career as a newspaper cartoonist. He supplemented his income by drawing quick caricatures of a sitter while an audience paid admission to watch- a novel entertainment during an era that predated television, radio, or cinema. Eventually, his drawing skills even earned him a few commissions as a book illustrator. 

    I mentioned that Cassius Coolidge’s CV included work as an inventor. His collection of patents included what he referred to as “Comic Foregrounds:- the predecessors of today’s carnival photograph boards where visitors are photographed with their face above a life sized caricature- one’s head on a bikini clad hippopotamus, and the like. Coolidge not only patented the concept of the Comic Foreground, but, living in New York City by now, also started a mail order business selling the hand painted life-sized caricatures. Unable to keep up with the demand himself, he hired local art students to help him complete the orders. Heretofore a bachelor, at the age of 64 Coolidge married one of his art students/ employees- 29 year-old Gertrude Kimmell. A May-December romance if there ever was one, they had one child, Marcella, in 1910. 

    It was also during this period that Coolidge began work on the commission of his now famous dogs playing poker series for the advertising firm Brown & Bigelow. 

    By 1916, with the first World War raging, the demand for Coolidge’s caricatures were down. With the family in need of money, and never too fettered by tradition, Gertrude went to work to supplement (and eventually solely provide) the family’s income while Cassius tended to the chores around the house. Mr. Coolidge died in January 1934 at the age of 89. He is buried in Hillside Cemetery  is in Antwerp alongside his wife, who passed in August of 1977. 

    It may be of interest to readers to learn that while the painting brought in a bit less than Monet’s San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk would have (in Thomas Crown the seminal work’s suggested value was $100 million) one of Cassius Coolidge’s dogs at cards paintings, Poker Game, secured $650,000 at a recent Sotheby’s auction. To borrow a line from Pierce Brosnan’s Thomas Crown: not bad for a wee lad from Antwerp!