Two men concentrate on a game of tric-trac, a form of backgammon, while a woman chalks the score on the side of the board. Meanwhile one man sits smoking, lost in his thoughts, while another lights a pipe from a bowl of embers. None of them is speaking and nor do they look at one another; all the interaction happens on the board.
Willem Duyster’s quiet scene does not have an obvious narrative but it is a satisfying composition. He paints four of the figures in profile but each is distinctive, and he enlivens what could be a static gathering by arranging the central figures in a circle and leading the eye around them. He not only skilfully depicts the way light falls on silks but also dresses his figures in subtle tones that do not break the atmosphere of gentle conviviality and reverie.
Willem Duyster was an Amsterdam painter who specialised in small interior scenes and was one of the pioneers of guardroom paintings, which show off-duty soldiers at rest. This painting of a game of tric-trac, a once-popular version of backgammon, shows his mastery at depicting materials and endowing his scenes with a subtle narrative.
As two men focus intently on the game, a woman chalks the score on the side of the board. A figure in the background sits smoking, lost in contemplation, while another man lights a pipe from a bowl of embers. None of the players look at one another and Duyster has wrapped each of them in their own private mental world. The room in which they sit is well appointed without being luxurious: there is a fine carpet on the table (which carries his signature), coal and wood lie on the floor beneath an elaborate stove, but the room is otherwise modest. The scene is perhaps set in the woman’s house since she wears an apron and is keeping the score.
Duyster painted board and card games many times, and a similar scene in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, shows an all-male company with one of the players wearing a sword, while another in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, has the non-players drinking and playing music. In both pictures one of the characters looks out at the viewer, drawing them in. Some Dutch depictions of games carry a moral message warning against the dangers of gambling and idleness, but this painting is a sober and contemplative image: there is no drink in evidence, nor any sign of gambling. This is a group enjoying the pleasures of company and gentle play.
All but one of the figures are shown in profile which gives the painting a certain formality. However, Duyster skilfully varies the poses of his characters and leads the viewer’s eye in a circle round the cluster of players. The woman’s outstretched leg reaches across to the tuft of trailing carpet to complete the sweep, while her extended arm chalking the score echoes that of the man placing his counter on the board. Such subtleties stop the scene from becoming static.
The pleasures offered by the painting are quiet ones: the comforting familiarity of the game and the clever way Duyster uses the light coming from the left to pick out the sheen of silks and the different textures in the room.
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