Perspective | Caravaggio’s ‘The Cardsharps,’ at the Kimbell, changed everything


If happiness “writes in white ink on a white page,” as Henry de Montherlant wrote (an aphorism often distilled to “happiness writes white”), drama dresses in stripes. I’m a sucker for the stripes in this early Caravaggio painting. They’re obvious on three items of clothing, and echoed more subtly in the alternating patterns of the feathers and on the backgammon board, and even — when you get close enough — in the dark and light ridges of the central figure’s creased brow.

“The Cardsharps” — Caravaggio’s first true masterpiece and one of the jewels of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth — shows two cardsharps trying to trick their well-dressed target at a game of primero (it’s similar to poker). It’s a tidy tableau, but it’s maximally theatrical and full of charged details. The central figure’s fingertips, for instance, are exposed through a tear in his glove, so that he can feel marked cards. He is signaling information about the dupe’s hand to his accomplice, who is meanwhile pulling out a winning card from behind his back.

There’s clearly a moral warning here. But whose side was Caravaggio on? And whose should we be on? Cardsharps, sometimes known as “correctors of fortune,” were more common in those days, and to some extent they were tolerated. Gamblers knew to be on guard, yet may have delighted in seeing such cheaters succeed against those who were less savvy — especially if they were rich!

Caravaggio was still little known when he painted “The Cardsharps,” around 1595. But things were quickly changing. He had recently painted a palm-reader trying to steal a ring from a client’s finger. And then came “The Cardsharps” — a sensation. More than 30 copies of the work survive — a sure sign of its impact. The general theme was taken up by scores of subsequent artists.

[A sumptuously painted swindle]

Its purchase by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a passionate arts patron, came with an offer for Caravaggio to move into the cardinal’s palace in central Rome. The artist accepted the offer, which exposed him to a whole new level of intellectual and artistic stimulation — and more clients. It changed everything.

“The Cardsharps” came into the Kimbell’s collection in 1987 after being lost for 90 years. Conservators knew it was a Caravaggio rather than a copy when they removed the lining and discovered del Monte’s wax seal on the back (although it remains possible that Caravaggio himself painted more than one version).

Caravaggio’s stripes are both a formal device and — as fashion always is — a sociological clue. The painting has other such clues: It’s hard not to notice, for instance, that the cardsharps’ outfits are cobbled together, the patterns and color schemes of the doublets and sleeves not matching at all, and that the fingernails of the trickster on the right are dirty while the victim’s hands are spotless.

But the stripes also function, to my eyes, as a kind of moral principle. Stripes are for bees and wasps and prison inmates. They signal danger, yes — but also an ambiguous moral zone that beguiles us, draws us close. They pulse, they set one another off, they’re just interesting, in a way that naivete is not. It has to be intentional that the one figure who has nothing stripy about him is the innocent, the patsy, the dupe.

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