Portrait of Chess Players by Marcel Duchamp

“I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” 

How about a game of chess with a man described by artist Willem de Kooning as a one-man movement?

Marcel Duchamp playing chess

The Portrait of Chess Players shows several figures (we counted four) facing the center, their arms merged on lower portion of the canvas. The chess pieces float in the undetermined space, and the whole painting serves as the board.

A competitive, award-winning player, Marcel Duchamp incorporated the game into his art throughout his career. In this 1911 painting Duchamp painted each head by successively layering and overlapping various angular panes. Studies done in advance of the oil on canvas illustrate how Duchamp planned the composition using a Renaissance technique called the vanishing point where parallel  lines merge from the outer margins of the artwork towards a single point, usually slightly off center of the pictorial plane.

“Portrait of Chess Players is rendered in a limited palette of earth tones, which Duchamp claims to have achieved through painting by gaslight.* The artist made six preparatory drawings and an oil sketch for the composition that reflect his increasing interest in capturing the mental activity of chess rather than in creating recognizable portraits.”**

What makes the Portrait of Chess Players important in an art historical sense is that this was one of Marcel Duchamp’s several abstractions exhibited at the famed Armory Show in 1913. The painting was one of several purchased by Arthur Jerome Eddy. Other works include Duchamp’s The King and Queen Surrounded by Swift Nudes (1912), Albert Gleizes‘s Man on a Balcony (1912), and Francis Picabia‘s Dances at the Spring (1912).

Watch our interview with Francis M. Naumann about Marcel Duchamp’s iconic Nude Descending the Staircase.

*Curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art write that the limited palette was one of the prevalent characteristics of Cubism.

**Emily Hage, from Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art (2007), p. 158.

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