Georges de La Tour (1593–1652) was long forgotten until the rediscovery of his artistic identity exactly one hundred years ago. Now regarded as one of the great figures of 17th-century art, La Tour’s paintings are extremely rare: there are just over 40 autograph works, none of which is in a British national collection. Documentary evidence is scarce, but it seems that La Tour spent most of his working life in his native Lorraine, in eastern France. He is best known for his later works: candlelight scenes that depict religious subjects with breath-taking clarity.
'The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs' is a masterpiece from La Tour’s early period, in which he produced richly coloured paintings of peasants, cardsharps and fortune-tellers. Gambling scenes were very popular in the first decades of the 17th century, largely owing to Caravaggio, whose 'The Cardsharps' (also in the Kimbell Art Museum) inspired a generation of artists to take up the subject. There is no evidence to suggest that La Tour ever travelled to Italy, so his inspiration was likely second-hand; either from prints or from northern artists who brought elements of Caravaggio’s work back from Rome.
Here, the beautiful courtesan in the russet dress gestures to the cheat to pull out the cards hidden behind his back; he will then win the hand, and the pile of gleaming coins on the table. The courtesan’s shifty glance encourages the maidservant to ply the confident youth at right with wine, distracting him while the switch of cards takes place. La Tour has lavished great attention on the flamboyant costumes, from the colourful plumed headpieces to the embroidered collar and the crisp folds of the youth’s pink satin sleeve. A second version of this composition by the artist, with notable differences in colour and costume, is in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.