The Art Of Chess: A Brief History of Chess in Fine Art

Before the 1900s, chess-themed artworks tended to be literal images of people at play, such as “The Chess Players” (1876) by American artist, Thomas Eakins which depicts two gentlemen absorbed in play with a third figure watching the game unfold. One can almost feel in the painting, the silence and atmosphere of tension and unwavering concentration of the three men in their splendid, rich interior. In complete contrast, “The Chess Game” (1555) by the renowned Italian female artist and protégé of Michelangelo, Sofonisba Anguissola, shows a much more relaxed and informal scene. Unlike the gentlemen in “The Chess Players”, the all-female group clustered round the chess board are not taking the game seriously; neither players nor on-lookers are engrossed in the game and even the young woman who is making her move, is doing so whilst gazing out towards the viewer.

The 13th century Libro de los juegos (The Book of Games) includes further examples of people playing chess. Each painting in the book incorporates a position on a chess board which is flanked by various figures, apparently engaged in the game, and surrounded by scenery. However, unlike the previous paintings mentioned, the images in this book, which was commissioned by Alfonso X, King of Castile (Spain), have a double purpose; they can be enjoyed in themselves as aesthetically pleasing images but also intellectually as chess problems

From 20th century, when the age of Modernism was dawning, artists began to offer different kinds of chess-inspired works. Max Ernst’s bronze sculpture “King Plays With His Queen” (1944) (cast 1956) is seen by some as a sinister statement about sexual exploitation and domination. With “The Chess Game”, Macedonian artist and avid chess player Ilija Penusliski demonstrates the all-consuming power of chess and the intense feelings of despair and pain one can experience when one loses in the game that one is “in love” with.

“The Chess Players” (1876) Thomas Eakins
“The Chess Game” (1555) Sofonisba Anguissola
Libro de los juegos (The Book of Games) (13th century) example
“King Plays With His Queen” (1944) (cast 1956) Max Ernst
“The Chess Game” Ilija Penusliski

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