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If asked to think of paintings that depict betting, your mind might conjure the image of Coolidge’s ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ or Cezanne’s ‘Card Players’. Indeed, there was a time when those poker-playing dogs decorated the wall of every bar across America. Cezanne’s slightly impoverished looking poker players, meanwhile, became all the more famous for having been sold at a whopping $300 million in 2012. 

Less likely to come to mind is the vast number of paintings, from centuries past, that depict gambling in all its glory and misery; revealing cultural attitudes and game traditions in the process. The fact is that gambling, in its many forms, has served as the subject of inspiration behind famous works of art from as early a time as Ancient Greece. For the purpose of this article, we’ll take a look at depictions of gambling in paintings between the 16th and 19th century, taking into account the social, legal and artistic context.

 

Cardsharps 16th century
Caravaggio

 

Caravaggio was an innovator, a trouble maker, and an incredible artist. His acute observation of lighting, and ability to find detail amidst the mundane is no more apparent than in his dramatic depiction of Biblical scenes. However, everyday activity in 16th century Italian society - such as that of a card game depicted above in his famous ‘Cardsharps’ painting - also gives us a great insight into how Caravaggio viewed the world with an artistic lens. As viewers, we are captivated by the tense scene of deceit taking place, and as such might miss the impressive detail in the table cloth or in the mens’ garments. Note how the older accomplice’s face is darker, giving us a depth perspective that shows how he is ‘lurking’ in the background. We might also interpret his maturity as significant; perhaps the younger trickster has been pressured into the game by his overbearing, greedy mentor. In contrast, the young and oblivious opponent has an almost angelic face with a peaceful expression that is likely a deliberate signifier of his innocence. The prize and the purpose of the cheat lies in view; a big stack of coins on the table.

 

Die Falschspieler, 17th century

Gerard van Honthorst

 

Van Honthorst uses lighting in a stark and effective manner to convey a mysterious ambiance, and a sense that something illicit and forbidden is taking place. This is quintessential of the Dutch painter, who through his distinctive use of light and darkness earned the nickname ‘Gherardo delle Notti’. Evident from this painting, titled simply ‘Falschspieler’, is the influence Italian artists such as Caravaggio had upon the artist’s style. Indeed, Honthorst spent some time in Rome as a young artist before making a name for himself as a leading painter in the Netherlands. This particular artwork depicts what appears to be a tense gambling scene whereby three onlookers are emotionally involved in the development of the game. Gold coins are spread across the table, and a young nobleman gapes in disbelief at his opponent; a man with a barely discernible smugness in his expression. Though the exact year in which Honthorst completed the painting is unknown, art historians place it in the latter half of the 17th century.

 

 

Gamblers in the Foyer, 18th century

Johann Heinrich Tischbein

 

The scene is one of harmonious luxury in Tischbein’s airy and pompous depiction of gambling in the 18th century. Giving the painting a colonial twist is the gentleman in a turban who appears to be acting as some kind of moderator. The masquerade accessories and fancy dress leaves us in no doubt that this is a high society party. Though the scene is jovial, there are two guests who do not seem to be enjoying themselves due to a dispute at the card table, where a seated man with a powdered wig bears an expression of irritation. Perhaps the masks worn by party guests represent deception, to draw attention to the cheating that may well be taking place at the game table. Tischbein was a hugely respected German painter who was well-versed in portraying nobility life, and he will have most likely intended for the gambling scene to depict poker or possibly ‘piquet’, a card game which was popular in France at that time.

 

The Gaming House, 18th century
William Beckford

 

By the time William Beckford started painting his eight-part series about the fictional Tom Rakeford, the English artist had already made a name for himself as a painter of ‘moral tragedies’. Previously, he had painted a popular series ‘A Harlot’s Progress’ which documented the life of a fictional prostitute who, in the final painting, dies from the venereal disease. Beckford’s Tom Rakeford series is equally grim, following the young man from the moment he inherits new wealth, and descends into hedonistic debauchery. In the third painting, we see him enjoy an excessive lifestyle and orgies. The fifth painting depicts him marrying a rich woman purely for her wealth, while the sixth painting (above) depicts Rakeford losing all the wealth at a gambling establishment. From there on he ends up in prison and eventually at the famous madhouse ‘Bedford’. It would be fair to assume that the artist William Beckford did not hold gambling in such high esteem.
 

 

The Casino at Monte Carlo, 19th century
Christian Bokelman

 

No casino can be said to have the same legacy of fame and grandeur as the Monte Carlo casino. The gambling house’s history is steeped in royalty, having been commissioned by the Monacan Princess Caroline in the early 1800s for the purpose of restoring wealth to the crown. The building was designed by Parisian architect Gobineau de la Bretonnerie and opened to the public in 1863. The Monte Carlo Casino soon came to be regarded as the ultimate gambling establishment, nowadays associated with spy novels and a celebrity lifestyle. It’s hard to believe, but the Monte Carlo was initially regarded as an unlikely gambling resort due to the lack of roads leading to the Monacan coastline. Nonetheless, as evidenced by this lavish depiction of a crowded and festive games floor, the Monte Carlo Casino was successfully established as a sophisticated resort, offering craps, blackjack, baccarat and other popular casino games. Painted by Christian Bokelman, a German naturalist painter, the artwork may well have been commissioned by Monacan royalty as something of a marketing technique.

 

At the Roulette Table at Monte Carlo, 19th century
Edvard Munch

 

Here we see a more abstract interpretation of a scene from the very same casino - one that takes us intimately close to the action. We feel almost as if we are at the game table ourselves, perhaps in a dream, or in some intoxicated state. Typical to the Norwegian painter’s style, ‘At the Roulette Table at Monte Carlo’ shows colors and shapes merging and flowing in a surreal and eerie fashion. In 19th century Monaco, it’s safe to assume the roulette being played is of the French variant. Roulette was introduced in Paris in the 17th century, and by the 19th century had become the most famous casino game in all of Europe. To this day, roulette is one of the most popular live casino games, so it is interesting to see the game played with the same attentiveness and bustling interest one hundred years ago. Our eyes are drawn to the center of the roulette table where light is cast from the ceiling lamp above. Just like at a real roulette table, all focus is on the game...those that crowd around the table are mere shadows. It’s a testament to Munch’s talent that this painting so cleverly portrays this quality of being immersed in a game.

About the Author
Sophie Jackson is a marketer and journalist within the igaming industry.