Today's painting: a study of fraud and deceit by Georges de La Tour, The Fraudulent Player (c.1635). La Tour has an instantly recognizable style and subject matter, as Christine Stukenbrock explains: "[his paintings] consist of a few large figures placed in the immediate foreground and defined by strongly contrasted light and shadow." Usually his paintings (such as The Magdalen of the Candle, c.1644) have a single source of light in the painting that splashes light across the characters' faces, leaving the rest of the painting shrouded in darkness. The Fraudulent Player is a bit of a departure for him, since it offers a more humorous subject, one more familiar from Dutch genre painting of the vices and follies of mankind. Yet even here, the dark/light contrast is noticeable, the characters set against a pitch black background, with an unseen light (coming from the viewer) illuminating their actions. It makes the painting appear as if it occurs on-stage, and indeed, the entire work has the air of a comedy.
At the far right, a naive fellow plays cards with a group of hustlers. We know he's supposed to be a provincial bumpkin because he's dressed to the nines (complete with frilly feather in his cap), looking very proper--yet very stiff--as he holds his cards. Notice how carefully he's inspecting his cards, as if he's only just memorized the rules and is terrified of making a mistake. On the other side of the table is a rakish fellow, his arm perched in a "devil may care" pose as he reveals his cards to the viewer. He also reveals some sleight-of-hand action behind his back: two Aces buried in his belt, one of which he handily removes to bolster his hand. He seems to be glancing at us, as if to entreat our silence--or approval.
The two women in the center are engaged in some chicanery of their own. The imposing-looking woman gives an arch look to the servant, who clearly has more on her mind than serving refreshments. Decked out in a fashionable dress and necklace, this woman is out to dazzle the young man, all the better to distract him from the real wager of the evening. She crooks her finger as if to summon a glass of wine, but she seems to stop the servant at the last minute, as if to say, "serve him first." The servant cuts her eyes over the young man, perhaps hoping to catch his eye with her decollete. This might also be why the young man is looking nervously down at his cards: he's probably never seen so close to such beautiful women before and is getting flustered!
Though the young man seems to have the most money at the table, we imagine that this will soon change...and he will soon be in their debt. All the vices have assembled against him this evening, and if one doesn't catch him, another will. Many scholars have seen parallels with the Prodigal Son, since here's a young man ready to sow his wild oats, not realizing that he's actually the dish being served! Now doubt he will return repentant back home the next morning, having been robbed and humiliated by these polished cardsharps. Humorously, the painting makes us an accomplice, since we see all the trickery--and do nothing. As with so many things in life, it's easier to see the injustice done to others than the trickery behind our backs.