Arts & Culture

The Cardsharps

Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi)c. 1595

Kimbell Art Museum
Kimbell Art Museum

Caravaggio was one of the pivotal figures in the history of Western art. In his short lifetime, he created a theatrical style that was as shocking to some as it was new, inspiring others to probe their subject matter for the drama of psychological relationships.

Apprenticed in Milan in 1584, Caravaggio came to Rome in the early 1590s. There his early masterpiece The Cardsharps came to the attention of the influential Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who not only purchased it but also offered the artist quarters in his palace. Caravaggio was thus introduced to the elite stratum of Roman ecclesiastical society, which soon gave him his first significant opportunity to work on a large scale and for a public forum.

In The Cardsharps, the players are engaged in a game of primero, a forerunner of poker. Engrossed in his cards at left is the dupe, unaware that the older cardsharp signals his accomplice with a raised, gloved hand (the fingertips exposed, better to feel marked cards). At right, the young cheat looks expectantly toward the boy and reaches behind his back to pull a hidden card from his breeches. Caravaggio has treated this subject not as a caricature of vice but in a novelistic way, in which the interaction of gesture and glance evokes the drama of deception and lost innocence in the most human of terms.

The Cardsharps spawned countless paintings on related themes by artists throughout Europe—not the least of which was Georges de La Tour’s Cheat with the Ace of Clubs in the Kimbell.

The Cardsharps was stamped on the back with the seal of Cardinal del Monte and inventoried among his possessions after his death in 1627. Its location had been unknown for some ninety years when it was rediscovered in 1987 in a European private collection.

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Details

  • Title: The Cardsharps
  • Creator: Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi)
  • Date Created: c. 1595
  • Physical Dimensions: 37 1/16 x 51 9/16 in. (94.2 x 130.9 cm)
  • Provenance: Cardinal Francesco Maria Bourbon del Monte [1549-1626], Palazzo Madama, Rome; by inheritance to his nephew, Alessandro del Monte, Bishop of Gubbio [d. 1628]; purchased in 1628 by Cardinal Antonio Barberini [1607-1671], Palazzo Barberini alle Quattro Fontane, and Palazzo ai Giubbonari, Rome; by descent to his nephew, Don Maffeo Barberini, Prince of Palestrina [1631-1685], Palazzo Barberini, Rome; by descent to his son, Don Urbano Barberini, Prince of Palestrina [1664-1722], Palazzo Barberini, Rome; by descent to his brother, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, Prince of Palestrina [1662-1738], Palazzo Barberini, Rome; by inheritance to his niece, Donna Cornelia Costanza Barberini [d. 1797] and her husband, Don Giulio Cesare Colonna di Sciarra [1705-1787], Palazzo Barberini, Rome; allocated in 1812 to their grandson, Don Maffeo Barberini Colonna di Sciarra, 7th Prince of Carbognano [1796-1849], Palazzo Sciarra, Rome; by descent to his son, Don Maffeo Barberini Colonna di Sciarra, 8th Prince of Carbognano [1850-1925], Palazzo Sciarra, Rome, and Paris, to about 1895. Private collection, Europe; purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1987.
  • Rights: Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
  • External Link: www.kimbellart.org
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • Century: 16th century
  • Artist Nationality: Italian
  • Artist Dates: (1571–1610)

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