We are in the middle of a card game. One figure stares directly at us, a look of apparently benign amusement on his face as he holds his hand close to his chest. By contrast his opponent is focused intently – perhaps even short-sightedly – on her hand, deliberating on how to play next. Judging from the coins spilling out of the man’s purse onto the table, there seems to be money at stake.
Card playing was a controversial activity in seventeenth-century Holland, associated with laziness, greed, deceit and a lack of chastity, and artists often hinted at these themes in their paintings. However, whether there is an erotic charge or a moral message behind this picture is far from certain. The coins might be taken as suggestive of a commercial exchange, but there are no other hints of potential seduction or illicit love. Recent scientific analysis of the painting suggests that it was probably produced in Rembrandt’s workshop, most likely by a pupil.
It is not an unusual scene. In seventeenth-century Dutch painting there are numerous pictures of people playing cards. The reason it was considered a suitable subject is explained in a treatise on art by the artist Philips Angel II (about 1618 – after 1664), published in 1642, which recommended that painters depict ‘people seated and throwing dice and playing cards’ because such details are ‘pleasing to the viewer and based on reality’. Nevertheless, it was a controversial activity. Since medieval times, card playing had been associated with laziness, greed, deceit and a lack of chastity, and artists often hinted at these themes in their paintings. Card games were often set in brothels, sometimes depicting men in the process of squandering their fortunes, but also in more private contexts, where the men often seem to be attempting to seduce their female companion.
This scene is of the more intimate variety: a man and woman apparently alone together, are playing cards in front of a fireplace. There is no suggestion of a brothel, though the purse could be taken as a hint of a commercial exchange. Whether there is an erotic charge or a moral message behind this painting is far from certain, however. The woman is modestly dressed and there is no alcohol or tobacco, often interpreted as aphrodisiacs, on the table. And the cards on the table have no apparent significance – an ace of hearts was often used to suggest a romantic theme, but is not visible here. So perhaps the look on the face of the man is one of a frustrated lover, confronted with a virtuous opponent. Or perhaps we are just witnessing two young people playing an innocent game. We can’t be sure.
We also can’t be sure who made the painting. It is unsigned and though once thought to be by Nicolaes Maes, over recent decades this attribution has been doubted. Other artists, including Barent Fabritius and Cornelis Bisschop, have been suggested; there is no consensus. But all these artists were either trained by Rembrandt or had associations with his studio and recent scientific analysis of the painting suggests that it was probably produced there, most likely by a pupil. This is because the preparation of the canvas and especially the colour and type of paint used to prime the background is the same as Rembrandt used, and was probably unique to his workshop.
The original picture may have been damaged, as a strip of canvas has been added across the bottom by way of repair, just above the braided edge of the tablecloth. The join line is clearly visible running across the width of the painting.
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