Poker and Art: Inspiration from Gambling
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Poker and Art: Inspiration from Gambling

Poker has become a part of our everyday lives, and a prominent feature of popular culture. There are films based exclusively around gambling, others that feature gambling scenes, many TV shows and music videos show characters playing poker with friends or at casinos, and there are even words and phrases used colloquially that have their roots in poker.

Poker also features heavily in art, from the classics of mid-20th Century Americana, through to Pop Art, from classics of the Renaissance through to more modern, 21st Century pieces.

Coolidge: Dogs Playing Poker
Once of the most famous pieces featuring poker is perhaps by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, entitled Dogs Playing Poker. Coolidge painted a series of 18 of them in the late 1800s/early 1900s, starting with the original in 1894, and subsequent commissions from Brown and Bigelow to advertise cigars, and a final painting in 1910.

Never considered ‘real art’ in the same vein as Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or anything by Van Gogh (who incidentally wasn’t appreciated in his life time either), these iconic paintings of dogs playing poker have found themselves referenced by popular TV shows like The Simpsons and Cheers, and even feature on mugs, shorts and, funnily enough, playing cards. Art featuring poker has become so popular, especially amongst onlinepoker players, that the original painting in the series sold for a hopping US$658,000 at Sotheby’s, New York in 2015.

This painting has spawned many copycats, including Corgis playing poker, Poker Cats, and even a depiction of the animals playing poker in Noah’s Ark!

Caravaggio: Cardsharps
His first independent painting after leaving the workshop of Cavaliere Giuseppe Cesare d’Arpino, Cardsharps represents an important milestone in Caravaggio’s career. Depicting two young boys playing cards, one with extra cards tucked into his belt behind his back and a sinister older man peering over the shoulder of his opponent, Cardsharps was painted in 1594.

Cardinal Francesco del Monte purchased the painting and became Caravaggio’s first patron, though perhaps more for the style, use of light and colour, rather than the depiction of a gambling scene. The painting has changed hands many times, and after a centuries absence has been in the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas since the late 1980s.

Munch – At the Roulette Table
Famously known for The Scream, Munch was inspired by his stay in Nice and his regular visits to the Casino in Monte Carlo. Painted in 1892 when the casino had just opened and was the height of exclusivity and sophistication, it is a departure from Munch’s traditional style depicting raw and painful emotions.

Whilst a casino may have been an unusual place for an artist in the late 19th Century, there is evidence that Munch spent a great deal of time in the casino at Monte Carlo with some of Europe’s most powerful men. The painting reveals the strong emptions he felt at being round the roulette wheel, and Munch’s skilful and light hand manages to convey movement and drama in a static image.

Cézanne – Card Players
From the same period as Munch, but from a wildly different perspective, Cezanne’s series of paintings depicting peasants from Provence engaging in after work relaxation in bars playing cards. There are five paintings in the series, which vary in size, number of players, and the setting of the game.

Cezanne adapted a generally accepted stereotype from the 17th Century Dutch and French schools that had always depicted card games with rowdy drunks in taverns, showing his peasants playing quietly, with eyes downturned focusing fully on the game at hand. The two player painting has a notable absence of money and drink, common in the world of gambling, but showing a different side to the players of the day.

The smallest of the five paintings is perhaps the most famous, and is in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. It has featured on a set of postage stamps following a theft of eight Cezanne paintings (including this one). The Royal Family of Qatar also has one of the paintings, purchased for between US$250 million and US$320 million.

Beraud – The Casino at Monte Carlo (Rien ne va plus!)
Beraud was a Russian born French painter who depicted every day Parisian life during the Belle Epoque. He was popular in France, though mostly ignored by art historians, and often painted humorous depictions of everyday scenes, as well as adding biblical characters into contemporary situations.

His depiction of the Casino at Monte Carlo was painted in 1890 and shows the large roulette table with men and women sitting down to play, and plenty of movement at the sides of the painting, bringing the scene to life. Though one of the lesser known depictions of gambling, it has found a niche popularity and reproductions of the work can be purchased easily online.

Wilkerson – Slot Machine Queen
From the sublime to the ridiculous, Wilkerson’s depiction of an old lady playing the slots is the embodiment of all that is kitsch, bright, and brash, mirroring the subject matter. The addition of a cat and glass of wine, as well as cat-eye glasses and dice earrings reflects the fun of a casino, and that it should not be taken too seriously!

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