Written by Carla Davidson for AMERICAN HERITAGE February, 1973. Volume XXIV, Number 2.
That eighteenth-century British curmudgeon Dr. Samuel Johnson once remarked, "I would rather see a portrait of a dog that I know than all the allegorical paintings they can show me in the world." A hundred years later an American who shared this sentiment, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844-1934), began painting the daily life of some very humanoid canines, an artistic subspecialty that was preceded by a string of careers. In the upstate New York town of Antwerp, Coolidge worked, almost simultaneously, as a druggist, painter of street signs and house numbers, and founder of the first newspaper and earliest bank—all within the years between 1868 and 1872, It was after a trip to Europe in 1873 that he turned up in Rochester, New York, as the portraitist of dogs whose life-style mirrored the successful middle-class humans of his time. Coolidge's first customers were cigar companies, who printed copies of his paintings for giveaways. His fortunes rose when he signed a contract with the printers Brown & Bigelow, who turned out hundred of thousands of copies of his dog-genre subjects as advertising posters, calendars, and prints.
Coolidge's poker-faced style is still engaging today. His dogs fit with amazing ease into such human male phenomena as the all-night card game, the commuter train, and the ball park. His details of expression, clothing, and furniture are precise. Uncannily, the earnest animals resemble people we all know, causing distinctions of race, breed, and color to vanish and evoking the sentiment on an old Maryland gravestone:
Born a Dog
Died a Gentleman