Friday, May 4, 2012

Blackjack Players

Blackjack Players is finished.

Blackjack Players
28" x 42"     oil on linen      2012 
After some of my recent quieter color harmonies, this painting takes a different path with a rich green note amid bright reds and warm deep tones. I started the painting with a vague notion of going to red for the table, but didn't really know where the colors would take me; had no idea the woman's blouse in the center would be green. I never know these things in advance. My work may look premeditated and well-planned, but it's not as it seems; I believe the working process needs to allow the painting to freely go where it wants to go. 

As for the narrative, I'm a bit amused that the expressions of the three main players may perhaps accurately reflect their feelings about the cards they've been dealt. The woman in green has a total of 13 to 16 and little hope of winning with the dealer showing an ace ... she probably should have taken one more card. The man has a 6 or 7 which may or may not turn out OK with an additional card or two. The woman on the right is in good position with a 20. Was definitely not my intention to give a lesson about blackjack and human emotion; the faces were painted before the cards were thought about ... and the individual cards were chosen purely for compositional reasons. Again, paintings have a funny way of living their own life, of knowing what they need and where they want to go. Sometimes my role seems not to create a picture, but rather to bring a picture that already exists to light.

Arnolfini Wedding
ca. 32" x 24"    oil on oak panel     1434
Jan van Eyck
Collection: National Gallery, London
One of my favorite paintings is the van Eyck above ... and maybe the beautiful green of the bride's dress surrounded by the reds and dark warm notes, gave me the subconscious inspiration to give the woman playing blackjack a bright green dress as well. I saw the van Eyck on my first trip to London in 1972 and at the time it hung in a room illuminated with a skylight. The day outside was sunny, though large fair-weather clouds occasionally crossed the sun. When I went up to the painting, the sun was behind a cloud and the light subdued. After a few minutes I'd become totally lost in the picture, when suddenly the cloud passed and the room instantly filled with brilliant light. The color of the woman's dress exploded into the essence of pure green, intense and infinite ... was an incredible experience.


  1. I wrote a paper on this beautiful painting in college for an art history class. At the time, the experts seemed in agreement that the man was Giovanni Arnolfini, a wealthy merchant from Italy living in Bruges, that the woman was his wife, Giovanna Cenami.
    Very little is known of Giovanna and now historians seem to have removed her from this painting as well. Apparently, Mr. Arnolfini didn’t marry her until thirteen years after the painting was made.

  2. Andrew, I was reflecting on Blackjack Players and wanted to share some thoughts.

    Gambling is fraught with speculation, uncertainty and risk; it is a perfect social and psychological metaphor for our times. Is it play or compulsion? On the one hand the game promises riches and triumph; on the other, loss and ruination.

    Some figures linger on the frings engaged in idle talk of this or that, but the players shuffle-shoulder next to strangers bound together by the familiar intimacy of the cards. Their gaze is fixated on the red-baized Jerusalem which they look to for salvation; they are deaf to everything but the siren call of the cards. As Francis Bacon once remarked about his doomed lover: "He (they) lives in the interlude between life and death".

    The cards like exotic flotsam tantalize briefly only to resubmerge before anyone can lay claim to ownership. Everything comes to solitude in the end.

    And what of the dealer? She is not Eliot's Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant, but she still plays with "a wicked pack of cards". Her stock in trade is not the hanged man, but the one-eyed jack, the fickle ace. She is the Magister Ludi who holds fate in her hands. Dreams are crushed between her fingers as the cards are spun over and over. The numbers mark all who play the game.

    An exciting and important painting, Andrew. Congratulations!


  3. Great overview of the painting and how blackjack relates to our personalities. These paintings are classics.

  4. Thanks for all the excellent comments ... very much appreciated!



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