Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Fascinating Chess Painting

Thanks to GM Alexandra Kosteniuk's chess blog for posting about this extremely interesting painting of a chess game in progress.  I was so impassioned by it (ahem) that I posted a comment about it at her blog, one that probably very few will ever read and those who do probably disagree with my sentiments expressed therein :)


I'm not interested in how the painting came to be used in an argument about "what is art."  The painting itself is what galvanized me.  Take a look:

GM Kosteniuk's blog describes the painting as follows:  It was painted around 1730 by James Northcote, a member of the British Royal Academy of Arts.

Northcote was amazingly prolific. Over 2,000 works are attributed to him. He painted historic and current news events, scenes from the Bible and classic literature, together with hundreds of portraits.

It was his animal paintings that attracted the most attention, though. Northcote made a fortune with his dramatic depictions of jungle cats, elephants, dogs and birds. This Northcote in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum is not, for the most part, about animals.

The Chess Players shows a pair of gentlemen pondering over an endgame. There's a boy standing behind one of the players, and a little dog sitting in the corner.

If you study the painting for a while, you'll notice a couple of interesting details. For one thing, the chess players clearly are not the center of attention. They're dressed in dark, sober colors, receding into the space of the painting.

By contrast, the boy appears in blazing gold. It almost looks as if he's under a spotlight. Yet he shows no interest in the chess game. His attention is directed away from the world of the painting. In fact, he appears to be staring directly at you, the viewer.

In his left hand is a sheet of paper, covered with undecipherable characters. His right finger appears to be pointing at something. But what? The sheet of paper? The man beside him?

And what is that dog doing there?

We'll probably never know. Everyone connected with the creation of this painting has been dead for generations.

After studying this painting for all of say, 60 seconds, I concluded that the "boy" is not a boy at all but a beautiful young woman from the early Regency Period in England with fashionably cropped hair (like Lady Lamb did, you remember - Caro Lamb?  She who created a fabulous Regency scandal by recklessly pursuing the famous poet George Gordon, Lord Byron [whom, some say, married his 14 year old niece - or was it his half-sister...]

I think the figure in gold is a young woman.  This is why:

Take a look at the person dressed in gold.  She is not wearing a cravat (neck-cloth/tie).  The two chessplayers are.

She has an abundance of lace about her throat, on her cuffs and also inset into her very puffy sleeves - neither of the men are wearing any such affectations.  Also, notice that her gown is buttoned up to the top of the throat, common for day-gown wear, whereas the men are both wearing Regency style open-throated overcoats so that their fine lawn shirts showed to advantage along with their under-vestments and intricately-tied cravats.  Contrast her outfit with the tight-fitted suit coats/over-coats worn by the two men playing chess, in darker, somber colors, and both of the chessplayers are wearing cravats/neckties.

Notice the lady's face.  She has a blush on her cheeks (not blusher as in make-up as used today) - in contrast to the males.  This was an accepted way of depicting a woman's complexion in contrast to a male complexion.  She also has redder -- and fuller -- lips - in contrast to the males. During the period natural juice stains (strawberries, cherries) were often used by females to make their lips appear redder; and there was always the old stand-by -- biting one's lips to nearly the point of injury to get the blood flowing, just before going into company).  Note the chin, too.  She has a typical female chin that melts away into her throat (desirable in the period), whereas the male figures both have much more pronounced chins and jaw lines.  She also has much more delicately defined cheekbones than either of the chess players - and it's not just because she's supposed to be a boy.  However, I think the artist did intend her to be, ever so slightly, just a bit androgynous.  Just to tease the viewers of the day in the early 19th century (was she in drag???) and to even more so tease much less-educated in the nuances of the day viewers in our time! 

She is wearing a top-knot.  Anyone who has ever seen "Pride and Prejudice" (the 1998 A&E version or the 1996 cinema version) knows whereof I speak.  This was not a male fashion of the period - certainly not for boys.  The men, in contrast, are wearing typical Regency period cropped and pommaded hair brushed forward toward the face in waves and curls, sometimes in conjunction with lush sideburns - having given up the Georgian-period white-powdered wigs! 

What's that in the gold-clothed figure's left hand?  It's a fan - a lady's fan!  It looks rather awkward though - since the lady's left hand is also resting ever so softly on the shoulder of the younger chessplayer while holding the fan.  It apears that the fan is pressed between her bossom and  the young man's upper back.  It appears that she is leaning forward into him, almost as if she is pressing into him, and so the fan is trapped.

And that right hand with the pointing index finger?

More about my analysis of this painting and its symbolism tomorrow.  I't way past my bedtime now, I've got to scrub up and get some sleep. 

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...