The Backgammon Players
Oil on canvas (160.5 x 234.8 cm)
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
Painted toward the end of his career, in 1634, The Backgammon Players encloses what, at first glance, seems a conventional enough scene. A group of players, with perhaps nothing more important to do than idle away a weary evening, surround a backgammon board on which a game is in progress. The gentleman on the right has apparently just thrown the dice.
The players and spectators are not what they seem. Although the richly dressed nobleman and his warrior friend would seem to be in control of the situation, the open gaze and bold expression on the face of the woman player suggests otherwise. Moreover, the old woman behind her is neither chaperone nor servant, but more likely procuress, a common enough figure in Dutch and Flemish genre painting of that time. More than backgammon is being played and the gentleman has a lot to lose. At the lower left, two children, a young girl with a face wiser than her years and a young boy intrigued beyond his years, enact the drama in miniature. Meanwhile, in the background, to the nobleman's right, two kibitizers discuss the merits of the game, perhaps even placing a side wager. And finally, almost unnoticed in the shadows, is a tenth figure, in profile. With his downcast eyes and meditative posture, his heavy mood and glum demeanor, he is the only one seemingly ignoring the game. Perhaps he plays the role of the artist-observer, meditating, even as he paints, on the ultimate game where skill is likewise prized but, in the end, is also often no match for chance.