my own personal Waterloo
When C.M. Coolidge was commissioned by the advertising firm of Brown & Bigelow in 1903 to create a series of paintings depicting anthropomorphized dogs engaged in a variety of human activities I don’t think anyone could have predicted the firestorm of controversy that would follow. In particular the many conspiracy theories centered on his 1906 work Waterloo, better known to the world as Dogs Playing Poker.
From the time of its release there were those that accused Coolidge of placing hidden messages in the painting but it wasn’t until his death in 1934 that scholars began to take some of these speculations seriously. The painting depicts 5 dogs playing poker, an innocent enough premise, but when examined closely there are more questions than answers. Why is the glass tipped over in front of the angry Bulldog? Could there be another dog under the table and if so could it be a Wiener Dog? Why do none of the cigars appear to give off smoke and, most troubling, why does the effeminate Collie not have a chair?
A new wave of interest in the painting occurred in the 1970s when transplanted Georgia farmboy Doyle Harden began to crank out depictions of the painting from his Mexican factory on a novel type of canvas: velvet. Originating in Kashmir, velvet painting is an ancient technique embraced by early religious leaders and to this day many early works hang in the Vatican. The renewed popularity of the piece as well as the newfound association with velvet did little to quell the rumors that somewhere in this painting lay a message from its creator.
Recently it was revealed that if you superimpose the painting with its mirror image and both are made partially transparent, the composite picture clearly shows the Retriever clutching what appears to be a young puppy. It also appears to transform the Sheep Dog into a mix breed. These revelations immediately caused an uproar and many websites promoting various explanations crashed due to heavy traffic.
What was C.M. Coolidge trying to say?
And how could a dog with no opposable thumbs even hold cards let alone drink out of a glass?
Maybe the answer lay in the name. Waterloo. After being declared an ‘outlaw’ by the Congress of Vienna, the Battle of Waterloo signified the end of Napoleon’s rule as Emperor. Defeated by the combined might of an Anglo-Allied army led by the Duke of Wellington and a Prussian force commanded by Gebhard von Blucher, Napoleon was forced to surrender to the British and was later exiled to Saint Helena.
What could any of that have to do with a painting of dogs playing poker?
The mystery only deepened on February 15, 2005 when the original was sold by Doyle New York at auction for $590,400 despite the fact that it had been appraised for between $30,000 and $50,000 and no other ‘legitimate’ work from Coolidge had ever sold for more than $74,000. Sold to an ‘undisclosed’ buyer no less.
Perhaps unrelated, but perhaps not, Coolidge was also the inventor of the ‘comic foreground’, the large cut-outs where people stick their heads through to be photographed as an amusing character, that enjoys widespread popularity at carnivals and fairgrounds. How did someone born to abolitionist Quaker farmers in 1844 ever come up with that idea?
I’m trying to present this as unbiased as I can but holy shit, I’m getting goosebumps here. I smell summer blockbuster with Ryan Reynolds as the plucky yet irascible academic trying to get to the bottom of things.
The bottom line is this … how cool would it be to find a giant cut-out of Waterloo and get four of your friends to stick their heads through with you and get a picture?
That would be totally cool.