The image at the head of this post is a beautiful “still life” of 1630 by the French painter Lubin Baugin (1612–63), now in the Louvre (image: Wikimedia Commons). In this painting, a closed chessboard lies on one side of a table, and a lute on the other. So chess and music frame the composition. But this painting is more than a depiction of everyday objects; it tells a story. This post aims to unpick the narrative in this particular painting, and place it in a larger context.
The narrative arises from all the other elements in the painting: the lute lies on some written music, one corner folded up to aid page-turning; next to it lies a green velvet purse and a pack of cards; on the chessboard stands a vase holding three carnations, one pink, one red, and one variegated; a glass of red wine and a loaf of bread complete the scene. The narrative told by all these elements is clear: it is one of the intimacy of lovers at play. This may seem surprising to readers unfamiliar with seventeenth-century symbolic imagery, but this interpretation is consistent across all the objects. Pink or red carnations symbolise love, and the fact that the three blooms are of progressively deeper shades (and one is of two mingled shades) perhaps suggests that love between a couple has deepened through the other activities represented in the scene. The purse perhaps holds money won or staked in the game of cards implied by the pack lying next to it; the topmost card of the deck is the knave of clubs, and the card below is a heart, so perhaps the young man – “le valet” in a French pack of cards – has taken the heart in a trick. The chess board belongs to a game for two players, where one tries to catch or “mate” the other. The lute is an instrument with which a lover might traditionally woo the beloved. The bread and wine suggest a shared meal, and also perhaps the Eucharist – it is worth remembering that holy communion would usually have been celebrated at a wedding.
The association of chess and music with lovers’ pursuits is a theme found often in late medieval and Renaissance imagery, and it may well be the subject of a future post in this blog. For now, it is enough to register the way that Baugin’s skilfully arranged painting tells a story through its selection and arrangements of objects. Its meaning is not just pictorial, but narrative.
Narrative and visual art
It may seem slightly strange to claim that a painting represents a story. Narratives, by their nature, unfold in time, and a painting is probably the most static kind of artwork imaginable. Unless it consists of several scenes to be “read” in sequence, like a comic strip or a medieval saint’s life, the canvas remains fixed in one place. It invites contemplation of a single moment in time. You cannot even view it from different angles like a sculpture or a piece of architecture. Moreover, a “still life”, as its name suggests, is the most static and apparently non-narrative genre of visual art. However, in my opinion Baugin in this painting is playing with exactly these apparent contradictions between the flow of time that produces narrative and the frozen moment that defines a still life image. And by the end of this post, I hope to demonstrate that his choice of chess and music as the activities to depict in this still life are far from incidental.
Narrative in another French still life
I am not an art historian, but I do know that still life paintings became enormously popular in seventeenth-century art, especially in the Netherlands during the “Dutch Golden Age“. Many still life paintings play with the contrast between our own lives, which are constantly in flux, and the unchanging moment frozen on the canvas. Here for example is another French still life now in the Louvre. In this case the artist is unknown, but the similarity to Lubin Baugin’s picture is striking:
A remarkable number of elements in this painting are almost identical with the Baugin: a closed chess board and a musical instrument (a baroque guitar this time) frame the composition; there is another pack of cards and green velvet purse; there are flowers in a vase (tulips this time).
And yet the symbolism of this anonymous still life is entirely the opposite of that in the first painting. The guitar has no strings (there are no pegs in its pegboard), and rather than lying on music it has clearly just been playing, it is perched awkwardly on top of a mirror and a sword. The velvet purse is empty, its contents spilled next to it. The cards are disordered, rather than neatly piled ready for a new game.
I will not pretend to be able fully to decode the symbolism of the tulips, which at this date (the height of tulip mania) were some of the most expensive consumer goods in Europe; but in Western art of this period, they were usually taken as symbolic of the brevity of life and beauty.
The repeated symbolism of decay, abandonment and interruption is continued through the other elements of the painting. In addition to the chessboard and pack of cards, a cup with dice rolled out of it reinforces the message that gaming has finished. And most prominently, a skull looks at itself in a mirror.
The elements in this picture, compared with Baugin’s, may be similar; but the narrative is opposite. In fact, the implied narrative of this second picture is also much more conventional. It is given the French title Vanité, which is a generic title for still life paintings which suggest a meditation on the brevity of life and the deception of worldly pleasures. This conventional narrative of course exploits the inherent contrast I noted earlier between the unchanging moment immortalised on the static canvas and the “changes and chances” of the world which it depicts.
Narrative in a Dutch still life
This genre of painting, as I said, is associated most with Dutch artists of this period, whose version of the generic title was Vanitas. Here is an example by a well-known exponent, Pieter Claesz. It is a Vanitas still life of 1628, once again almost exactly contemporary with Baugin’s picture:
Here the narrative is even clearer: the violin is broken, the glass overturned, the quill discarded by the empty inkstand, the candle in the lamp has burned out; one hardly needs the skull under the violin’s neck. We are forced to contemplate a world in which nothing can have enduring value, because nothing can endure. The tiny self-portrait reflected in the crystal ball invites us to place ourselves in the picture, observing with the artist the inevitable decay and wearing out of everything that surrounds us in daily life. The story that the picture tells is that this is our destiny. Significantly, music is included as one of the pleasures of life that is revealed as ultimately worthless. Far from being a window into a transcendent world beyond this one, it is something that will cease along with everything else.
Why is Baugin’s narrative different?
What fascinates me most about Baugin’s still life is the contrast between the narrative it contains and that of these other, more conventional still life paintings. By comparison, Baugin’s picture is full of optimism: the games have been laid aside, the lute carelessly upturned on the music, but one feels that the two who were so recently playing chess and playing music must only have gone away in order to do something even more exciting, and will undoubtedly return to their playing soon.
This, it seems to me, makes an important assertion about both chess and music. Today, both fields have become so professionalised that their function as social activities is easily lost or forgotten. In an age when my performance of a Bach Prelude and Fugue can be immediately compared by anyone with a mobile phone to that of András Schiff, and when my playing of a complex chess endgame can be immediately shown to be full of errors by chess software on that same mobile phone, we need (or at least I need) reminders that music and chess alike are ways of interacting with other people. They are, properly, the pursuits of friends. Our play is part of our human flourishing. That is the message to take from your silent contemplation of Baugin’s enigmatic and beguiling canvas.
A seventeenth-century chess narrative
I hope that the above has convinced you that chess and music are far from accidental subjects for Baugin to have chosen to depict in his still life, which turns out to be rather a subversive work, celebrating friendship, affection and freedom in play rather than meditating on the melancholy inevitability of death. These two currents, pleasure and melancholy, are found throughout seventeenth-century art. To end this post, I want to turn to a game of chess and a work of music contemporary with the pictures I have been discussing, to see what kind of narratives they might unfold.
I am very attached to the idea that a game of chess is properly understood as a narrative form. The narrative is of course created by both players, rather than a single author, and they do not know how it is going to end when they start out. But seeing the unfolding of the game as a story, and the pieces as characters, is almost essential to following it in a way that makes it comprehensible.
The game I have chosen was played by possibly the first professional chess player to have lived, Gioachino Greco Cusentino (1600-1634), often known simply as “Greco” or “El Greco” (and not to be confused with the Spanish Court painter with whom he was contemporary).
Born in Calabria, he made a living playing chess, including at the royal courts of Rome, Paris, Madrid and London. The fact that he could have such a career in itself testifies to the growing seriousness with which the game was treated as a subject of study.
No-one knows if the games that Greco recorded were actually played in the course of his travels, or whether he composed them. Many of them are very short, and in fact demonstrate tricks and traps in the opening phase of the game which make them still valuable today. It has been wryly observed that, even if Greco composed them for demonstration purposes, many hundreds of games played over the years since have followed the exact same moves, as the unwary fall into the pitfalls he was so adept at discovering.
The game I have chosen can begin with the following position, reached after the first four moves. It has followed the opening called the “Giuoco Piano” or “Italian Game”, one of those explored most extensively by Greco.
To say that this is a well-known position would be an understatement. It is frequently reached today in games between the very best players in the world. The current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, and his predecessor, Vishwanathan Anand, have played this so-called “quiet game” frequently, leading to a resurgence in its popularity.
Let’s move on a couple of moves. Greco’s opponent makes the first decisive gesture, occupying the centre of the board with a pawn:
This is just what any beginning player is taught: occupy space on the board, and control the centre. Greco took the pawn, and his opponent attacked with the other central pawn:
The narrative of the game is becoming clear: White is taking the lead in the relationship between the sides, attacking at the earliest opportunity. Greco’s knight is now theatened by the pawn, and moves away, closer to White’s king; White in turn recaptures the pawn.
And now the narrative changes. Just as a Renaissance lady too forward in a relationship might find she receives more than she bargained for in return, Greco advances his pieces towards the White king. The game becomes a story of the adventuresome knights:
This seems to make no sense (as so much in relationships). The knight is attacked by two white pieces and defended by only one. White takes it, only to see the black queen advance:
Too late, White realises Black’s intent: she is already nearly captured. She rushes the knight back to defend her king, and Greco demonstrates an exquisite pattern of moves leading to mate:
This mating pattern, known as a “smothered mate”, is famous. I confess to having fallen into it myself. The fact that it remains today a trap for so many players is something of a tribute to Greco’s brilliance.
The final position is worth contemplating:
This is, in its way, not unlike Baugin’s still life. The white king is literally “still” – he cannot move, hemmed into the corner of the board and caught by the audacious black knight, a chess piece not unlike the knave of clubs who lies on the top of Baugin’s deck of cards. The game is over; Black is the dominant partner in this relationship, although the beauty of the dance is created by both players at the board. And like Baugin’s canvas, this is a picture with meaning: it tells a story, by making the viewer wonder how its elements came to be in their enchanting final arrangement.
A final narrative: seventeenth-century music
And finally, I wish to give the last word to music. Baugin’s still life features a lute, so it is only right to end with a lute song. In fact, I am going to cheat a little, because the song I have in mind was written as a madrigal, for five unaccompanied voices. However, there is no reason that it cannot be sung as a lute song, and its lyrics are entirely in keeping with the theme of this blog post.
Now is the month of maying is by Thomas Morley (1557-1602), and was published in 1597, just a few years earlier than the paintings and the chess game discussed above (but perhaps permissibly part of the “long seventeenth century”). One might think that the narrative is simply the story told by the words:
Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing,
(Fa la la…)
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass.
(Fa la la…)
But this is not the narrative told by the music: it is the story told by the lyrics. The music in performance is telling us about lads and lasses and their playing in the Springtime of their youth. In other words, the performers are asking us to contemplate a scene, just as much as Baugin and the other painters I have discussed invite us to contemplate their still life paintings. We are to infer the narrative each art work tells through thinking about what it shows us. Morley’s narrative is as optimistic as Baugin’s: we can delight in the scene of the merry lads and their bonny lasses playing together. They are probably playing chess.