To judge from the chalk marks on the back wall, each indicating a drink ordered from the innkeeper, it has been a long night of gambling and, to the intent pleasure of the kibitzers crowding the table, the stakes and tensions have clearly risen with every card the two soldiers have played.1 Jan Lievens’s painting, however, is not so much about the game itself as about the expressions on the protagonists’ faces at that dramatic moment when one of the players must deal with the sudden realization that he has lost. Holding his five of hearts loosely in his hand, the vanquished gambler stares in disbelief at the ace of hearts triumphantly held aloft by his helmeted opponent. Even if it were not for the obvious juxtaposition of the winning and losing cards or the intent gazes of this companions as they measure his reaction, the soldier’s body language and downward expression would be enough to tell the story.
This dramatic painting from the beginning of Lievens’s career demonstrates how thoroughly the young Leiden artist internalized the thematic and compositional innovations of the Utrecht Caravaggisti from the early 1620s. When Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656) returned to Utrecht in 1620, he brought with him an artistic repertoire that featured depictions of card and backgammon players huddled around a table.2 Honthorst’s compositions were tightly cropped, with the viewer inevitably situated close to the action, peering into the game over the shoulder of one of the players. Gambling is a night sport, where passions and foolish behavior are allowed their full range, their limits decided only by the size of the gamblers’ purses. In his now-lost Card Cheats, known today only from a workshop replica (fig 1), Honthorst exploited the darkness of the surroundings to unite the action, as light from a lantern in the middle of the table brightly illuminates the faces of the players and their cohorts, including that of the silhouetted gambler whose arm hides the light source.
Not surprisingly, prior to the discovery of the monogram IL, Lievens’s painting was attributed to Honthorst.3 The close compositional similarities to Honthorst’s gambling paintings, however, also reveal significant differences in Lievens’s figure types and body language, not to mention brushwork, that help distinguish the work of the two artists. Lievens’s gamblers are a coarser, lower-class group than Honthorst’s card cheats. They sit in an extremely tight circle, their forms more tightly compressed and restrained than those in Honthorst’s painting, with the result that the figures’ facial expressions rather than their gestures become the painting’s focus. Lievens’s bold brushwork, rough and unmodulated, and totally in keeping with the character of the players seated at the table, also differs from Honthorst’s smooth and elegant manner of painting. Finally, as is characteristic of other early genre scenes by the artist, Lievens seems to offer no moral judgment on the action of the card players. Whereas Honthorst followed a long iconographic tradition by emphasizing the deceitfulness and moral corruption of the game, Lievens departs entirely from such a narrative. His gamblers are involved in a game of chance, and the challenge he set for himself was to capture the emotions at the moment of truth.
Honthorst was not the only artist among the Utrecht Caravaggisti who tightly cropped his compositions in the early 1620s, so also did Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1595–1624), as seen in The Mocking of Christ from ca. 1622 (fig 2). Lievens must have known Van Baburen’s painting, for he based the figure of the silhouetted card player on the helmeted soldier in the latter’s work. Lievens probably also responded to the aggressive chiaroscuro effects in Van Baburen’s paintings and the rugged physicality of his figures.
Lievens may have painted Card Players as a pendant to another gambling scene, Tric Trac Players (fig 3), for the two works have virtually the same dimensions, a similar compositional focus, are both painted on canvas, and date from the early to mid-1620s.4 Nevertheless, as Bernhard Schnackenburg has noted, Card Players is compositionally more sophisticated than is Tric Trac Players and is painted in a far bolder, more assured technique.5 These stylistic differences, which suggest that the two works were painted sequentially, demonstrate how rapidly Lievens matured as an artist during these years.
Lievens’s Card Players belongs to a genre of guardroom and tavern scenes of soldiers that only developed in the 1620s. In an era racked by conflict, the presence of soldiers in the Netherlands was nearly constant, especially after the resumption of hostilities with Spain upon the termination of the Twelve-Year Truce in 1621. These men were mainly foreign mercenaries whose daily lives swung between periods of violence and boredom. Many lived an unanchored existence, a great deal of it passed in the demimonde of taverns and low company. Dutch genre paintings often concerned themselves with moral boundaries, and because scenes of soldiers often included depictions of gambling, indolence, prostitution, drunkenness, and other activities that transgressed these limits, they were very effective in holding the public’s interest.6
Lievens did not paint real soldiers or depict an actual situation, but rather dressed up local models to take on roles in this small human drama. For example, the man at the right also appears in Tric Trac Players (fig 3) and in Lievens’s An Old Man Holding a Skull, ca. 1630 (fig 4). Jan Jansz. Orlers, the Leiden burgomaster, historian, and art lover who wrote about Lievens in his 1641 history of Leiden, owned this latter painting.7 In the 1640 inventory of his possessions the painting is described as “the keeper of the Almshouse with a Skull in his hand.”8 Two archival documents reveal that in 1629 and 1631 the financial officer (rentmeester) of the Sint Catharina Gasthuys in Leiden was named Jan van Heussen, who resided in the Rijn district of town, where both Lievens and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) lived.9 This model also sat for other Leiden artists, among them an anonymous artist who painted Elderly Man in the Leiden Collection (GD-109), and Rembrandt, in his Old Man in a Fur Cap (Tiroler Landesmuseum, Innsbruck).10
Young painters also used fellow artists and friends as models to save the expense of hiring professionals. The young man with the pipe in the center of Card Players is likely Rembrandt, who posed for Lievens a number of times, as in a portrait of ca. 1629 (private collection, on loan to Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).11 Lievens, in turn, appeared in several of Rembrandt’s early works, as in Three Musicians (Allegory of Hearing), ca. 1624, in the Leiden Collection (RR-105). Rembrandt and Lievens would develop an artistic friendship and rivalry in which they forged a radically new style whose realism and drama are already evident in this work.