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The Artistry of Over Indulgent Gambling
Have you ever been to a home game where things go awry? Where the night starts off well enough, but then all hell breaks loose? Perhaps the overflowing alcohol got the best of a few people, or maybe it was the bad beat one buddy put on another for a big pot, and the friend wasn’t too happy about it. Possibly, an ill-timed verbal jab in the heat of the moment led to some hurt feelings. When you combine money, gambling and over indulgence, anything can happen. Festering resentments can result in arguments, which in turn can ruin relationships.
Jan Steen, one of the leading genre painters of the Dutch Golden Age, would have felt right at home embroiled in such drama. He would have loved the chaos. And, it’s reflected in one of his most celebrated works of art.
“A lively painting that captures all the drama of a classic gambling game,” reads an article titled The Most Iconic Artistic Depictions of Gambling at artdaily.com.
Lively and dramatic, indeed. Argument Over a Card Game is an all out assault on the senses, and it’ll leave you wondering, “what exactly happened in this place, on this night?” It depicts a drunken tavern scene where any attempts at moderation were left at the door.
Argument Over a Card Game
There are playing cards strewn all over the floor, a case of chips that had fallen from the table as well, and the two central figures are pushing and shoving. They’re fighting. A third man, in the centre, seems to be trying to break things up and calm tensions. A fourth off to the right, has his arm raised threateningly. It seems he’s holding something, perhaps a weapon. His left pant leg is completely shredded, suggesting he’s already been involved in a scuffle. There is a fourth man with his hand on his head and he’s smiling, almost laughing, like the whole situation is surreal and he can’t believe his eyes. There is a woman on her knees, begging the two men to stop, a dog is barking in distress, and two onlookers off in the background are quietly minding their own business.
The signs of an ill-fated poker game, right?
Hangin’ with Rembrant
The oil on canvas painting (84.3 x 1173 cm) is dated circa 1665, and is on permanent display at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, a world renowned museum in Germany, a 72 room gallery covering almost two kilometres. With some 1,200 artworks, it possesses one of the finest collections of European art from the 13th to 18th century. The exhibition includes masterpieces by artists from every age of art history such as van Eyck, Bruegel, Dürer, Raphael, Tizian, Caravaggio, Rubens and Vermeer. And, somewhere in amongst the 16 Rembrant’s, the museum’s main attractions, hangs Steen’s gambling gem.
If you look closely enough, you’ll notice the artist embedded himself in Argument Over a Card Game. Steen can be seen off to the right, laughing, and is apparently enjoying the action. The painting brings to light the raw primal instincts that exist in human beings, and the negativity, outrage and anger that come with a great loss. Was somebody cheated? Did someone lose a fortune? And, why is the artist acting gleeful with all the pain surrounding him?
God & Beer?
Born in south Holland in 1626, to a family of catholic brewers, it’s fair to assume Steen has firsthand knowledge of the insidious nature of libations. Moderation is the key as they say, and beyond that anything goes. Both the simplicity, and the unpredictability of life and culture are reflected in his work, too.
Here are ten titles in the Steen catalogue:
* Peasants Before an Inn
* La Toilette
* The Drawing Lesson
* Rhetoricians at a Window
* A Burgomaster of Delft and his Daughter
* Twelfth Night Feast
* The Dancing Couple
* The Doctor’s Visit
* The Merry Family
* Fantasy Interior
He was obviously a sporting type. The Bowling Game, circa 1655, features a number of players attempting to knock pins down while others around them enjoy an afternoon social gathering.
The Bowling Game
Likewise, Skittles Players Outside an Inn (1960) paints the scene of country farm picnic, with horses, and a few people partaking in another activity involving balls and pins, similar to bowling. He must have liked music, too. In The Lute Player (1960), we see woman playing her instrument while staring at the artist, as if she knows she’s being painted. There are two people in the background, relaxing, and it seems their day is winding down.
A Gambling Man?
One thing is for sure, though, Steen was a gambling man. At the tables, and in life. Like in Argument Over a Card Game, he once again outlines the dangers of excess in Beware of Luxury (1960). With music and mayhem, and plenty of imbibing, this piece perfectly encompasses a night of debauchery. Yes, it can be fun letting loose, but there is a price to pay.
Beware of Luxury
Steen completed another gambling painting, The Card Players in an Interior (c. 1660), and it too brings focus to one of the dangers of gambling — cheating. In the main room, we see a woman fully engrossed in her task at hand, to blindside the unaware men around her. She is holding her cards in one hand, is hiding another card in another behind her back, and there is an ace exposed on the floor. The men, her competition, are unaware of the trap they are about to walk into, and she is knowingly looking at the artist, evidently proud of her handy work.
The Card Players in an Interior
Known for his psychological insight, sense of humour and abundance use of colour, Jan Steen is also heralded for giving the world two of gambling’s most treasured works of art.