The Gamblers

Hendrick Ter Brugghen
Dutch, 1588-1629
The Gamblers, 1623
Oil on canvas
Minneapolis Institute of Art
The William Hood Dunwoody Fund


What is going on in this picture? If we take a careful look at the figures body language and facial expressions, we might assume a confrontation is taking place. The young man on the left appears to be saying something. His gaze is focused on the older gentleman across from him. Further in the background another young man seems to want to be part of the action.

What might be the topic of the disagreement? To figure that out, move your eyes to the older man. He isn’t looking at the boy, but instead is peering at the table. He must be looking very carefully because he is holding up his spectacles. Notice too that the other men’s hands are also pointing at the table. What could this be about?


The Outcome of the Game


The silver coins on the table lead us to believe the players have placed a bet on the game.
Let’s look at the table in the foreground of the picture. There we see dice, a deck of playing cards, and a pile of coins all clues that some sort of game has just concluded. These items are the focus of the painting’s composition, as well as the subject of the men’s discussion.

The title of this painting is The Gamblers. This game was more than a friendly match. The silver coins show that the players are wagering on the game. Whom do you think is the winner of the bet? Who is the loser?

We can assume the older gambler has lost the game. The way he holds onto his glasses tells us he is closely examining the count of the dice. The younger man looks as if he is declaring himself the winner. The third man seems to be on the side of the young gambler. Their facial expressions seem a bit deceitful one can’t help wondering if this game was played fairly.

The older man is probably wondering this as well. In fact, his left hand tightly clutches his sword handle. What do you think he will do next? Might he draw his sword and find a different way to settle this bet?

What does the expression on the young man’s face tell you about the outcome of the game? What do you think he is saying?

Unhappy with the way the game has turned out, the old man grasps his sword. Could the two other men be tricking him?


Realism and Light


The Denial of Saint Peter,
c. 1620-25,
oil on canvas,
The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund
Caravaggio’s use of bright lights and dark shadows inspired other Dutch artists. Gerrit van Honthorst, who painted this picture, also studied in Rome.
The painter, Hendrick Ter Brugghen, was born in Deventer, Holland, in 1588. However, the years he spent in Italy, from 1604 to 1614, most influenced his artwork.

In Italy, Ter Brugghen fell under the spell of the great artist, Michelangelo da Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s art seemed different from the art of his contemporaries. He was interested in showing the gritty side of life, so he made his figures look as realistic as possible. Many of his subjects were religious figures. But others were ordinary people, such as gypsies, musicians, and gamblers. Undoubtedly, Ter Brugghen’s choice of subject matter was no coincidence.

Ter Brugghen was also intrigued by the way Caravaggio depicted light. Caravaggio’s paintings were full of contrasting bright lights and dark shadows, which gave them added drama. His influence can be seen in The Gamblers, where the brightness gleaming from the men’s armor contrasts with the dark shadows on their faces, their clothing, and the table.

Master of the Procession Gathering of Gamblers with Hurdy-Gurdy Player,
c. 1660,
oil on canvas,
The John R. Van Derlip Fund
Pictures of everyday life became more popular in the seventeenth century. This painting also shows a lively scene of gamblers gathering around a table. Take a moment to compare this image to Ter Brugghen’s.


Cleaning up The Gamblers

Did you know that paintings, just like pets, cars, and clothes, need to be cleaned from time to time? Cleaning a painting is a very delicate procedure. Time, expertise, and research are required to prevent any damage to the art during the process. A conservator, a person specially trained to care for art, does this work.

Ter Brugghen’s The Gamblers recently spent some time at the Getty Conservation Center in Los Angeles, California. While at the Getty, the painting received an extensive makeover. X-ray images of the painting showed several areas that needed special attention. Two strips of canvas had been added to the sides of the original painting, probably to make it fit within a specific frame. Conservators removed these strips so the painting was returned to its intended size.

The Gamblers received a thorough cleaning. Layers of overpainting and discolored varnish were removed from the painting. Eventually, the richness of the original colors and shading were revealed.

Part of the conservation procedure involved taking full X-rays of the painting.

Take a closer look at the strips of canvas that were added at an unknown date. It is believed this was done to fit the painting into a specific frame.

Related activities

Dialogue Development

The men in The Gamblers are obviously in a dispute. What is the young man saying to the elder gambler? How would the older man respond? Create a dialogue between the characters in the painting.

A Little Inspiration

Ter Brugghen was an admirer of the great Italian artist Caravaggio. Look at Caravaggio’s painting The Cardsharps from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. How is this work of art similar to The Gamblers? What differences do you see? Write a short essay comparing and contrasting the two paintings.

Fun and Games

Check out other works of art at Mia related to sports and games using the search tool on Mia’s website. Click on artworks that interest you to find out if they are on view at present, and, if so, what galleries they are in. Then, visit Mia to see them in person. To request a school group tour, use our easy online request form

Flip the Page

Picture this painting as just one illustration in a larger story. What happened before? What will happen next? Add to the story by drawing the next scene.