Flemish painting and De Jonckheere Gallery's old master paintings
The portrayal of card games or games of chance was one of the favourite themes among 17th century Dutch painters. Here, Jacob Duck invites us to join a game of...read more
The portrayal of card games or games of chance was one of the favourite themes among 17th century Dutch painters. Here, Jacob Duck invites us to join a game of backgammon. Two couples, sitting around a table, seem to be absorbed in this well-known game of chance, which consists of obtaining a maximum number of points by rolling dice. Since it can only be played by two people, the second couple are looking on as spectators.
Generally known as “merry companies”, interior scenes portraying leisure activities aimed at the middle classes appeared under the name geselschap or geselschapje in the 17th century. These in fact feature gatherings of fashionably-dressed young people from good families, taking part in various forms of entertainment indoors or in gardens. The artists from Haarlem were the first to specialise in these paintings, but were joined by artists from Utrecht and other towns, who also began to develop this theme. The particularity of these artists is that they transposed these interior scenes into rooms where guards would rest (cortegaerdje); these scenes were also widely distributed through engravings. In Duck’s work, these scenes bear more resemblance to brothel scenes (bordeeltje), relatively speaking, and rely on a rigorous and special iconography.
In a particularly luminous interior, four young people are gathered around a games table. A servant stands behind them in the doorway. Duck’s often numerous characters, depicted in guards rooms or taverns, are brilliantly sketched. Here, he focuses on four figures. The young woman dressed in blue and wearing a feather in her hair, is trying to catch the attention of second woman whose is clearly tired and is resting her head on her hand. This drowsy attitude undoubtedly reflects Duck’s taste for sleepy characters: his guards rooms are full of them. The light is diffused throughout the room thanks to her full, flowing clothing, with the golden yellow extending to the games table. By her side, a guard, still wearing his hat, observes the scene. With his back to the viewer, the player leaning on the table offers a wonderful shortening effect. He has left his hat, pipe, cape and arms on a small stool in the foreground. Just like a still life, the objects form a magnificent ensemble. Musical instruments hang from the wall.
The presentation of backgammon players in Duck’s work is rather unusual. He painted a number of these around 1630 . This game is also portrayed in the paintings of Duyster from Amsterdam and Dirk van Baburen from Utrecht. In 1546, Cornelis Anthonisz engraved one of these plates featuring games of chance. However, our painting bears more resemblance to the engravings by Jacob Matham, from the series on the consequences of drunkenness . But it does not appear to be Duck’s desire to deal with morality. What Matham infers is that once the game is finished and the glasses emptied, it is the turn of the go-between. In our artist’s work, the message seems to be closer to the Flemish interpretation of backgammon: “verkeerspel” comes from verkeer, which means to keep someone company. Several couples are often present: there is a subtle difference between the idea of community and the bordeeltje scenes. Indeed, the guard has taken sustenance: an empty pewter plate lies on the side. But he does not seem to have drunk too much the wine.
As regards the pictorial technique, the way the light is rendered is of prime importance. Using large bay windows, the artist does not hesitate to bathe his composition with a flow of light, giving depth to the scene. The skilful light and shade effects reinforce the painting’s dynamic, enrich the palette of colours and fine tune our perception of the materials. Whether considered from the point of view of the theme or the artist’s technique, this game of backgammon is the perfect synthesis between tavern scenes and portrayals of guards rooms so dear to the artist. Forming a work of great finesse in a perfectly accomplished style, Jacob Duck hereby offers us one of the finest examples of 17th century Dutch genre painting.
Utrecht c. 1600 – 1667
The genre painter and aquafortist, Jacob Duck, was born circa 1600 in Utrecht, into a family close to the artistic milieu as confirmed by the signature of Abraham...read more
Utrecht c. 1600 – 1667
The genre painter and aquafortist, Jacob Duck, was born circa 1600 in Utrecht, into a family close to the artistic milieu as confirmed by the signature of Abraham Bloemaert, the witness on his parents’ will. In 1611, Jacob was apprenticed to a gold and silversmith in Utrecht. In fact, he is noted as belonging to the town’s guild of gold and silversmiths’ in 1619. His name was later associated with J.C. Droochsloot (1586-1666). He then appears in the archives of the guild of Saint Luke in 1621 as an apprentice portrait painter, reaching the status of master between 1630 and 1632. He is then registered in the archives of the guild of Haarlem where he lived circa 1636. Lastly, his name is mentioned in The Hague between 1656 and 1660. He finally returned to Utrecht where he died in 1667. Ruined, his six daughters had him incinerated on 28 January 1667.
Duck perpetuated the great tradition of military scenes, guardsmen and society gatherings, popularised by the painters of Amsterdam and Delft, such as Willem Duyster, with whom he shares the talent of colourist, Pieter Codde, J. Olis and A. Palamadesz. He also painted tavern scenes, domestic activities and people playing games. His compositions are characterised by a slightly oblique perspective where the floor seems to always be more elevated on the right than on the left; and by elements of décor borrowed from still lifes, such as musical instruments, fine pieces of cloth, games, clay pipes, dishes that evoke idleness and its futilities, the mortal condition of man, and the ephemeral nature of pleasure.
Featuring subjects as well as lively stories, that were both social documents and aesthetic achievements, the works of Jacob Duck offered art-lovers with the most austere Calvinist beliefs a true source of visual escape. Card games or backgammon, which were played as much in taverns as at home, were very popular pastimes in the 17th century. Jacob Duck offers us society scenes with people having fun, symptomatic of a reaction against the moral and religious conventionalism that reigned in the Dutch republic. His characters never partake in extreme jubilation: the scenes are a comment on the attitudes of a society as regards all aspects of private or public life, painted with talent and extreme subtlety.