Cards in Art

Assiduous artist SB is now transferring the Dead Man’s Hand cover illustration onto the watercolour paper. Boy it sure looks good!–

Dead Man's Hand Photoshop Final

Dead Man’s Hand Photoshop Final

I like the sense of space. Not too busy. The chips dropping out of the left gambler.s right hand herald the arrival of an unexpected guest. The cards arranged in the dead man’s hand occupy the focal point. That we dared to go with a full contemporary setting impresses me. So often, it seems that the urge to go with period dress from some other time seems like the right thing to do. But I think as a piece of art ages, part of its appeal will lie in how it captures how the people in the time it was created appeared and dressed, the furniture that they used, the types of venues they would frequent.

I think that.s one of the difficulties in doing crucifixion or religious scenes today. So many masters in the Renaissance tried their hand at them that they.ve sort of crystallized how these scenes should look in our minds: Jesus and his cohorts dress in Renaissance clothing and sport Renaissance hairdos and fashions. It is like trying to write a play in blank verse today. It.s almost impossible since the influence of Shakespeare is so strong that you.d end up just doing a poor imitation of the Bard. That.s what I like about the 20th century Canadian painter William Kurelek: he has the audacity to clothe the characters in his religious settings in modern garb. Here.s his Who is She that Cometh Forth as the Morning Riseth? And it works. The religious feeling is perhaps even amplified because the characters and architecture appear contemporary. They feel closer:

Detail from Kurelek Who is She that Cometh Forth as the Morning Riseth?

Detail from Kurelek Who is She that Cometh Forth as the Morning Riseth?

I thought I.d share a special treat with diligent readers today. In the book Poker Wit and Wisdom by Jerome and Dickson, there.s a top 10 list of playing cards in high art. To get an idea of what.s being accomplishing with the Dead Man’s Hand, it.s useful to take a look at how past masters have depicted cards.

First up is Raftsmen Playing Cards by George Caleb Bingham (1847):

Raftsmen Playing Cards

Raftsmen Playing Cards

Are they sitting on a pier or a large raft?–can.t see the feet of the fellow on the left. How attention is drawn to the cards is that they occupy the horizontal centre of the painting, 1/3 up from the bottom. The islands in the distance provide a natural frame to draw attention to the card players. A more honest game than some of the ones coming up.

Number two is Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice (The Cheats) by Valentin de Boulogne (1620-1622):

Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice

Soldiers Playing Cards and Dice

This painting captures the psychology of the gamblers well. Notice how mesmerized they are by the impenetrable uncertainty in the dice and the cards.

Here.s number three. The Cardsharps by Caravaggio (1596):

Cardsharps

Cardsharps

Hey what do you know?–one can look naive and expectant but be cheating at the same time! And the other players should be focussed less on the uncertainty in their hand to focus more on the stray hand of the cheater! Incidentally, the philosopher Ian Hacking used this painting to grace the cover of The Emergence of Probability.

Number four is actually a whole bunch: the House of Cards series by Jean-Simeon Chardin (1736-1737):

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

House of Cards

The delicateness of the models and the fact that they are building a houses of cards–the most unstable of structures–is what defines this series. There is no ominous sense in these pictures but the instabilities of the models and their buildings would suggest otherwise. It would be a fun experiment to see what sort of effect could be generated by making a house of cards with the dead man’s hand.

Number five is none other than Guardroom with Soldiers Playing Cards by Jacob Duck (1620-1660):

Guardroom with Soldiers Playing Cards

Guardroom with Soldiers Playing Cards

What better way to stay awake for a long watch! The stillness of the watch is amplified by the sparseness of the setting and the dull colour tones.

Number six is Glass of Beer and Playing Cards by Juan Gris (1913):

Glass of Beer and Playing Cards

Glass of Beer and Playing Cards

I think I see a card with some clubs on it and a rather frothy looking beer. Oh wait, there.s a card with some hearts too. Not sure what to make of it, but the orange tiles are a warm and inviting colour. More information please!

Onto number seven. Here we have Scene in a Gaming House from A Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth (1732-1734):

A Rake's Progress

A Rake’s Progress

What a busy den of iniquity! But maybe the rake is doing well?–he looks like he.s having a He-Man moment, you know the one when he pulls out his sword and says: ‘By the power of Greyskull!’.

Number eight is The Card Players by Pieter de Hooch (1663-1665):

The Card Players

The Card Players

It looks like the cards are a prelude for a different sort of a game! Do you think de Hooch should have used a different colour for the skirt for the lady by the window?–her skirt melds into the drapes/table/wall leaving her legless!

Number nine is A Woman Playing Cards with Two Peasants by Hendrick Sorgh (1644):

A Woman Playing Cards with Two Peasants

A Woman Playing Cards with Two Peasants

I like how the relaxed looking duck looks almost anthropomorphic. Lots of opportunities for painters to capture human psychology in these card portraits: here there is self-loathing, mischievous delight, and the winner going in for the spoils. What.s that that she.s won?–a jug of milk?

And number ten is also called The Card Players, but this time by Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1893):

The Card Players

The Card Players

Everything looks very soft from the array of couches to the cushion/table between them to their flowing robes. I wonder what the preoccupation with red is in this era? Maybe a reaction to all the dull colours in the paintings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?

There you have it, ten + one masterpieces! Ten established paintings and one emerging masterpiece. One thing is interesting: a lot of paintings from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this time, Pascal, Cardano, Tartaglia, and others were laying the basis for the science of probability using dice and card games. The fascination with risk and chance on the human mind seem to be an especial focus for paintings from that era.

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and risk, uncertainty, and cards are the tools for Doing Melpomene’s Work.

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