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Work The Morra Players
Department of Paintings: Dutch painting
Les Joueurs de morra
© 2008 RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
This picture from a prestigious source (Cabinet Choiseul, 1771) is in the style of a "bambocciata" (a realistic portrayal of Italian low life with many small figures). It has an Italianate feel, with its lyrical, idealized light. It is among the most sophisticated of Dujardin's works, with larger figures than usual. The picture's true subject has perhaps still to be deciphered (a lesson on vanity?), adding to its charm and appeal.
A game of morra or vain boasting?
Against a background of Roman ruins, a beggar and a soldier are deep in conversation, under the attentive gaze of a fair-haired young boy and a servant who has come to bring them a dish of meat. Perhaps the picture is about the game of morra, where chance is combined with strategy. The game was fashionable in contemporary Italy and was often depicted by Dutch painters. To win, each participant had to guess correctly the number of fingers that all the players would simultaneously hold up. But the picture's subject might also be an exciting story being told by the man in white, and listened to with rapt attention by the young woman and boy. As for the soldier, he is not taken in by this vain boasting: he is openly confiding in the onlooker through the well-known amusing gesture he is making, which invites us to share his incredulity.
The picture was undoubtedly painted in Amsterdam in the 1660s, for it was during this period that the artist developed the habit of introducing classical features into his backgrounds. For example, the porphyry Roman sarcophagus was inspired by the very famous one that was then in the Pantheon (it was moved in the eighteenth century to St. John Lateran to contain the remains of Pope Clement XII). In this composition, Karel Dujardin is working in the "bambocciata" style popular with artists like Sébastien Bourdon and Jan Miel. The "bambocciata" was a type of painting featuring an everyday scene of Italian low life or peasant life. It was made fashionable by Pieter van Laer, who was nicknamed Il Bamboccio. But although Dujardin uses the dark colors typical of this genre, his Caravaggio-style chiaroscuro has enormous power, giving the figures a sculptural presence which is rather rare in his work.
A lesson on vanity?
The picture may be more than a popular representation of a game or a braggart's tale, and may have a deeper meaning. The sculpted medallion on the left depicts Hercules, a virile allegory of Strength. Perhaps he is set in contrast to the beautiful Venus, the feminine goddess par excellence, who, together with Cupid, stands on a pedestal in the middle ground. The servant, the only woman in the picture, might then personify the waywardness of the senses in the form of both illicit love and fine food, as opposed to the duty of the warrior. Finally, the strong presence of the sarcophagus dominating the scene appears to have a significance beyond that of pure classical-style decoration. So this picture is probably not as joyful as it appears, and may contain a lesson on vanity that still remains to be deciphered.
Bibliography- GALLOZZI Arièle , "Une notoriété déviée par le jeu du hasard ?", in Gazette de l'Hôtel Drouot, n 1, 9 janvier 2004, p. 107.
Karel DUJARDIN (Amsterdam, 1621/1622 - Venise, 1678)
Les Joueurs de morra
H. : 0,73 m. ; L. : 0,75 m.
Acquis en vente publique à Paris par don de la Société des Amis du Louvre, décembre 2001 , 2001
Holland, second half of the 17th century
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