The Cardsharps was a high point in Caravaggio’s career and is arguably his first real masterpiece. It was a very popular piece at the time, and over 50 copies of it made by other artists survive today. After leaving the workshop of another artist, for whom Caravaggio had been painting backgrounds and still lives, Caravaggio set out on his own to establish himself as an independent artist.
His painting The Fortune Teller had attracted some attention but his next painting, The Cardsharps helped to further his reputation. It attracted the attention and patronage of Cardinal Del Monte who purchased the painting and then invited the young artist to live in his palace. The Cardinal introduced Caravaggio to the elite society of Rome and was instrumental in Caravaggio’s success as an artist.
In The Cardsharps we see a youthful man who is being swindled as he is studying his cards, unbeknownst to him there is an older cardsharp watching over his shoulder and signaling his partner with his raised hand. The young trickster watches the boy and reaches behind his back to pull a card out from his belt. The goal of their scheme, a stack of coins, sits waiting on a tray at the edge of the table.
Caravaggio approached the painting through the drama of psychological relationships. The interaction in the painting seems to suggest the loss of innocence and the reality of deception - the loss of the innocence of the boy being duped, the other young boy losing his innocence as he is being corrupted by the older cardsharp. The attention to details creates all the more drama including the split fingers to more easily feel marked cards in the glove of the older man, and the black hat of the innocent boy hiding the peering right eye of the older man.
The Cardsharps was stamped with the seal of the Cardinal and inventoried with his things following his death in 1627. The painting then entered the collection of Cardinal Antonio Barberini and was handed down through the Colonna-Sciarra family. For some ninety years its location was a mystery until it resurfaced in 1987 in a private European collection.
Learn about Caravaggio's Painting The Lute Player
The Lute Player
The Supper at Emmaus
The Fortune Teller