Chess and painting have been around for a long time. Chess and painting are 'done' all over the world. People are passionate about beautiful tableaux; people are passionate about chess. Could there be two, more complementary disciplines?

As painting and chess have quite a lot in common - they both require discipline, focus and good visualisation skills, it shouldn't come as any surprise that chess features in many pieces of painted art.

In fact, chess is the theme of so many paintings that Czech artist Peter Raabenstein compiled them all into a book, titled Chess in Art. It looks back over 800 years and features works from 700 different artists, along with commentary about how both the game of chess and the art of capturing it on canvas has changed through the centuries.

As you are reading this article, no doubt in the hopes of discovering a few paintings that feature chess, you might now worry that you'll be reading forever because 800 years worth of paintings is a lot to read about.

Thankfully, the monumental task of researching and detailing all of those chess-themed paintings is already done. Today, Superprof selects just a handful of them to talk about.

Won't you let us know about your fav chess painting via the comments section? Thanks!

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The Chess Players, Moritz Retzsch

This artist, whose full name is Friedrich August Moritz Retzsch, doesn't have near the high profile his work merits.

He started his career as a painter, etcher and draughtsman at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in 1798, when he was 19 years old. He became a faculty member nearly 20 years later and earned his full professorship five years after that.

Though there's little to document his rise as an artist, it's safe to say that he was sufficiently talented not only to stay at the academy for so long but also to attract the attention of the publisher and industrial pioneer FreiHerr Cotta. His publishing house contracted Mr Retzsch to paint 24 scenes from Goethe's Faust.

This commission brought him fame and fortune, and he went on to other commissions, painting scenes from other plays, including works by Shakespeare.

Many believe this painting should be called one more move
Many maintain the nickname Checkmate is undeserved; it should be called One More Move. Source: Wikipedia Credit: One More Move Chess Art

His theatrical scenes were his bread and butter but another of his paintings, The Chess Players, has an equally remarkable story.

It depicts a game in progress, between someone who is presumably the Devil and a refined-looking young man. The devil appears rather smug, confident in his win while the youth, staring fixedly at the chessboard, head propped in his hand, seems on the verge of despair. In the background, an angel looks upon him in sorrow.

Even the chess pieces reflect the good-versus-evil theme. White's pawns are cherubs while Black's - the devil's pieces, are gryphons and, while Black's pieces seem to lewdly prance, White's stand piously; virtuously.

For a long time, this piece was nicknamed Checkmate. People seemed to believe that it conveyed sorrow at virtue lost; the Devil won again!

This painting is remarkable not for its theme and contrasts of religious iconography but because a chess grandmaster, upon studying it, concluded that the despairing young man had one more move to make to avoid checkmate - indeed, to win the game.

That grandmaster was none other than Paul Morphy, also known as the Pride and Sorrow of Chess, a prodigy who, many believe, retired from the game far too young. He couldn't help himself; he had bested every chess player in the US and in Europe. He felt the game had nothing left for him.

However, his name lives on in chess circles; not just for his legendary chess skills but because of the Morphy defence - a popular response to the Ruy Lopez opening.

The Game of Chess, Sofonisba Anguissola

The most renowned Renaissance painters: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael... Sofonisba Anguissola?

Indeed, Ms Anguissola was quite the trailblazer of her time. Born into a cash-poor yet noble family, she and her sisters were treated to a full education programme that included fine arts courses. Her teachers, recognising her talent, apprenticed her with several painters working in Cremona, where the family lived.

In fact, her apprenticeship paved the way for other female painters' acceptance as art students.

Sofonisba Anguissola had a remarkable career, including an early partnership with Michelangelo in Rome. As her reputation grew, she was offered commissions to paint noble families all over Italy. She even travelled to Spain, where she became King Phillip II's official court painter.

In that era, it was highly unusual for a woman to be credited with artistic skills, let alone to become a court painter. Artemisia Gentileschi, another Italian painter (of the Baroque period), had also managed that feat, and mainly because her father was the court painter for England's King Charles I.

You might say that Sofonisba Anguissola blazed the trail and Artemisia was right on her heels. But Ms Gentileschi didn't paint any chess tableaux; Ms Anguissola did.

The piece depicts her sisters in a mischievous pretend game of chess.

The rich colours and general air of leisure convey a deep sense of well-being
The rich fabrics and seeming wealth of well-loved children at play belies the artist's humbler roots. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Sofonisba Anguissola

Lucia, the family's third-born daughter, is moving a chess piece while her younger sister seems to admonish her. The family's fifth daughter looks on in delight while their housemaid surveys all from the background.

The girls are richly clothed and the chess set appears ornate. It rests on a cloth-covered table; said cloth, too, appearing like something out of a rich household's linen stores.

Details such as these are important, considering that the family, while titled, had little money.

What makes this painting outstanding is twofold: first, that it was painted by a woman and, second, that it features females playing chess.

Nobody said chess could only be played by men but playing this Game of Kings calls for strategic skills and logical thinking - two traits not generally attributed to women during that era.

Notably, chess rules had just changed in Italy around that time; the new guidelines made the queen the game's most powerful piece. Perhaps that change was the inspiration for this delightful glimpse at the Anguissola daughters at play.

The Book of Games

El Libro de los Juegos, literally The Book of Games, was commissioned by the King of Castile, Galicia and León, Alfonso X, in the late 13th Century. Illustrations, some in colour, accompany the text so the reader can better understand dice games, backgammon and chess.

The Libro covers more than 100 chess compositions, as well as chess variants. As the book examines the games from an astrological perspective, it is less a moralistic treatise than an exposure of the games' dual nature of luck and skill.

The book itself is a work of art but the artwork it contains is downright breathtaking:

  • Chess Problem #35 depicts two players mid-game, seated on a bench with the board in full view
  • Four-Season Chess shows a chess set with its pieces divided into four, differently-coloured 'teams', each reflecting a season
    • this chess game is played with dice, unlike the other chess games the manual depicts
  • Knights Templar Playing Chess shows two such nights engaged in play; the Templar cross is prominently displayed
  • Astronomical Chess: the board is designed in seven concentric circles and 12 radials to reflect the zodiac theme

Libro is considered one of the most important resources for historians, sociologists and those who study the nature and development of board games.

Also, as it contains more than 150 images, it is a boon for art historians.

Lady Howe seems poised to beat the venerable Benjamin Franklin at chess
This 1867 painting shows Benjamin Franklin apparently worried about his game while Lady Howe appears calm and confident. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Edward Harrison May

Chess in Art

The idea of art encompasses far more than just paintings. Art is written works, both poetry and prose - and even comics; television shows and those featured on streaming services (The Queen's Gambit, if you please); films, music videos and even video games...

At one time or another, through the centuries, chess has featured in all of them.

There was even a theatre production, Chess, the Musical, that is loosely based on the Fischer/Spassky Match of the Century.

But our topic is chess in famous paintings and no chess-themed painting is more celebrated than The Chess Players.

If you know anything about chess in paintings, you might wonder which Chess Players tableau we mean. Besides the one presented at the start of this article, our quick research found five more thus-titled paintings, in three different languages. Surely, there are others.

But some have much more provocative titles, such as Niccolo de Pietro's St Augustine and Alypius Receiving Ponticianus, a painting that shows Alypius apparently far more interested in his chess game than Augustine's conversion.

Likewise, Hans Muelich's 1552 painting of Duke Albrecht V and his wife playing chess while others look on challenges the idea of a loving couple engaged in a stimulating pastime. After all, Duke Albrecht was Bavarian and his wife, Anna, was Austrian. Perhaps they represented warring territories through their chess game?

Together and separately, chess and art have enjoyed longstanding veneration. And for good reason! Not only do these disciplines demand the same skills, they are often pursued by like-minded people.

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