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Let's Decode This - The Cardsharps

Updated: Jun 8, 2020

What: The Cardsharps

Who: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

When: 1594

Where: Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Hello and welcome back to Carivaggio. Today we will be exploring one of my favorite paintings of all time - The Cardsharps.

Three men sit together, but could not be more far apart. Although in a world entirely their own, two cheats jump out of the frame, haunting us with their sweet deception.

The Cardsharps, painted by Caravaggio in 1594, is truly an amazing piece. If you recall anything from my previous posts, just simply by looking at the work you should already know it comes from early on in Caravaggio's career. The work is bright and colorful - very different from a work like David with the Head of Goliath that we looked at two posts back. Caravaggio had not yet developed his characteristic tenebristic (severe contrast of light and dark) style. The sheer mastery level of this work is unprecedented. Caravaggio was around 25 when he painted this work. The detail is insane.

This painting is about many things, but mostly about the loss on innocence. Keep that in mind as we go through the painting piece by piece.

First we will do an initial visual analysis - this is something you should be doing the minute you come upon a piece of art. You should be looking for what is most obvious.


We see three men sitting at a table playing a game of cards (it is actually a game called Primero, a sort of pre poker type card game). There are two younger boys while the third appears to be an older man. The background is light and the colors are vibrant. Everything seems visible - however do not let the brightness fool you. This scene most likely takes place in a Roman tavern (a bar).

The composition of this piece is inviting, the viewer feels as though they are standing right over this table. The circle is tight enough to make us feel the intimacy in this scene, but open enough for the viewer to understand what is really happening here. We feel the push and pull between the naive and the obvious.

Looking closer, you start to realize that the two men to the right of the work are cheating. The older man (the accomplice) is signaling the boy wearing the stripes (the cheat), who is bringing out cards he has hidden in his pants, most likely to trump whatever cards the the young boy being cheated (the dupe) is holding. So now we know what we are looking at; the accomplice, the cheat, and the dupe.

Looking even closer, start to notice what these characters are wearing. The dupe is richly dressed in a plum velvet jacket, with what seems to be a frilled undershirt. He is clean and put together. Now look at the cheats, notice how their outfits seem haphazard and confusing - as if they found random items of clothing and put them together. Notice how the seems are ripping on the shoulders of the young cheat - an indication that he may have sewn this outfit together himself. It is becoming more clear why these two cheats have chosen this dupe. He is clearly well off and naive to such scoundrels.

Here, he represents innocence. His face is sweet and soft. He focuses on his cards, unaware of the deceit happening right before him. He looks like many of Caravaggio's boy figures. Although this was one of his earliest pieces and it is not clear whether he is the model for any of his following work.

It is believed these figures were modeled off every day Romans, to make the viewer feel more connected to the work.

The accomplice wears gloves which expose his fingertips, making it easier for him to feel marked cards. He is a seasoned cheat.

Look at the juxtaposition between these to fellows. A young boy with a sweet essence almost morphing into this seedy man with ill intentions. Maybe Caravaggio is telling us something about what happens when you lose your innocence. You then take it away from someone else.

If I was cheated, he should be too.

The young cheat keeps his eye on the dupe - but we only see is profile. His face alone seems as innocent as the dupe, but his actions tell another story.

Caravaggio tells us not to judge a book by its cover.

Just a fun detail here - the game we all know as backgammon (this little detail is just so cool). This is also a sign that these men had started off the evening with backgammon - boy this poor kid must have lost a ton of money that night.


After picking the piece apart and speculating on all the little details, what was Caravaggio trying to tell us here? And why? Think about it and let me know.

My analysis is as follows:

Clearly this work is about loss of innocence. It is also about youth. It is also about circumstance. It is also about luck.

At this time Caravaggio was at a very transitional period in his life. He had just come over to Rome as an aspiring artist. His technique was groundbreaking. He received a lot of attention for it, both good and bad. Like in many of his works to come, he is painting a human experience. We are all cheated sometime in this life. Some of us are cheated out of a game, and others have been cheated in a more catastrophic way. But no matter how, why or when, we all lose our innocence. I do not believe Caravaggio is blaming any of these characters. Some say it is naive to be naive and some say ignorance is bliss.

Would you rather be the one cheating, in control and aware - or the one being cheated. Here, Caravaggio tells us that we are all one of these men in some way. Sometimes we manipulate things to go our way, sometimes we let others manipulate us. These Cardsharps are a never ending circle of human behavior. Are we the cheat, the accomplice, or the dupe? In some way or another, we will be all three. Caravaggio grasps the realities of life and paints scenarios in which we can relate to. He teaches us not to be blind yet shows us that we all have been blind.

We are all subject to the innate failures of human beings.

Thank you for listening and reading. Please share this blog with whoever you think will enjoy it. I really do spend a lot of time writing these so I would appreciate any feedback, comments and likes.

See you again soon,


Oh, and here is me with the painting :)

*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia.

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