Exhibitions and Installations, J. Paul Getty Museum, Sculpture and Decorative Arts

Paris Gamblers: Gaming in 18th-Century France

Players of backgammon, bridge, and bingo might feel a keen camaraderie with the prosperous Parisians of the 1700s whose sumptuous world is brought to life in the current exhibition Paris: Life & Luxury. The well-coiffed elite of the time relished a good card game.

Inside the galleries of <em>Paris: Life & Luxury</em>: a gaming table, chairs, and candlesticks

An elegant setting for gaming on display Paris: Life & Luxury: a card and writing table (table à quadrille brisé) from about 1725, two armchairs (fauteuils à la reine) from about 1735, and a pair of candlesticks (flambeaux) from about 1680–90. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 75.DA.2, 75.DA.8.2–.3, and 72.DF.56.1–.2

“Games in the 18th century were played on all levels of society, for all different reasons and age groups,” Charissa Bremer-David, curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the Getty Museum and the exhibition’s co-curator, told me.

Salons during the reign of Louis XV, between 1723 and 1774, were packed with a well-heeled set who loved card games—often played using decks illustrated with portraits of the kings of France. Wealthy European outside the kingdom, who imitated French fashion and design, also adopted this addictive diversion.

Gaming in the 18th century was a way of advertising a healthy surplus of disposable income. Among aristocrats, gaming was an indication of status, rank, wealth and class. It was also a family affair. The upper echelons of French society considered games a highly instructive learning tool for the little ones. Children honed their math skills by counting cards, reading the dice, and tallying the score.

Two centuries before television, nocturnal entertainment meant in-person social networking, storytelling, and maintaining one’s composure when lady luck neglected to arrive at the gaming table.

Box Set of Gaming Pieces / Du Paquier Porcelain Manufactory

Box Set of Gaming Pieces (Boîte de jeu), Austrian (Vienna), about 1735–40, Du Paquier Porcelain Manufactory, hard-paste porcelain, polychrome enamel decoration, gilding; gold mounts; diamonds. The Art Institute of Chicago, Eloise W. Martin fund; Richard T. Crane and Mrs. J. Ward Thorne endowments; through prior gift of the Antiquarian Society (1993.349). Gift of the Antiquarian Society (1995.95.1-4). Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago

Playing with a boxed set of gaming pieces would be an elegant way to lose one’s wig. This boîte de jeu is a posh porcelain game box studded with gold and diamonds and enameled decorations of the Jack of Diamonds and Queen of Hearts. The porcelain gaming chips (inscribed with the name of the coin known as “Louis,” after the king) came in different denominations for laying down bets. As elite Parisians tossed in their chips, they might have marveled at the smooth porcelain, a versatile new material in Europe dubbed “white gold.” (The magical material was also handy, literally, for drinking tea and coffee—the new hot beverages of the time).

The set was designed to play an extraordinarily tricky Spanish card game called hombre, whose full name is a friendly taunt, “Yo soy el hombre,” or “I am the man.” The ancestor of bridge and whist, hombre is a trick-taking game with trumps that involves wild scoring and betting on a 40-card deck. A four-person version of the game called quadrille also was also very popular with gaming-table types. Pierre-Louis Dumesnil’s painting Interior with Card Players, shown here, captures the relaxed ambience of a typical evening of games.

Interior with Card Players / Pierre-Louis Dumesnil, about 1752. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Interior with Card Players, about 1752, Pierre-Louis Dumesnil, Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Harry G. Sperling, 1971 (1976.100.8). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY

These diversions represent only a sampling of the exhibition’s 160 works of art and artifacts—from a portrait of a lady at her dressing table to a magnificent canopied bed—that correspond to activities often represented by the allegory of Four Times of Day that portray scenes from morning to night.

The show also features a centuries-old game of chance called cavagnole, an 18th-century Italian ancestor to our bingo. You might recognize the rules: Each player is given a card divided into five sections, with each section randomly numbered between 1 and 160. The player would place a wager on one numbered section of his or her card.

Cavagnole Game Bag and Pieces (Jeu de cavagnole), French, about

Cavagnole Game Bag and Pieces (Jeu de cavagnole), French, about 1750, green-stained ivory and silk. Private collection

Small illustrated scrolls, each inscribed with a corresponding number from 1 to 160, were tucked into little green-stained ivory beads. The banker would put the beads into the drawstring bag and shake it, then pluck one bead from the bag, and unfurl the winning number, though it’s unlikely that the winning player would have exclaimed, “Cavagnole!”

The illuminated scrolls on display in the exhibit put today’s cardboard bingo cards and chips to shame. The tiny numbered squares of vellum feature ornamental fountains; wine-drinking monkeys dressed in human clothes, playing backgammon; as well as the famed 18th-century rhinoceros Clara, who traveled Europe as a celebrity for 17 years.

Game cards from Cavagnole Game Bag and Pieces (Jeu de cavagnole)

Four game cards from a Cavagnole Game Bag and Pieces (Jeu de cavagnole), French, about 1750, watercolor and gouache on vellum. Private collection

Gloaters were not welcome. “You were not meant to show your base emotions of greed or anger at losing or winning,” Charissa told me. “Etiquette manuals of the day were very specific in this instruction.” Squaring debts was a matter of honor; you settled your gaming debts first, before you paid your tailor or servants.

Still, there was plenty of room for cheating and rigging the game. Lotteries and gaming houses abounded, as did innocent victims of these vices. One field of statistics—probability theory—grew from strategic observances made during gaming sessions: “If I am holding so many cards in my hands, where are the other cards?” Then the card counting began.

The 1700s were also a time when people on the lower rungs of society, who didn’t live a life of Parisian luxury, could end up being extraordinarily lucky. In one famous story, an assistant to a cook in an elite household became rich overnight at the gambling table. Taking a chance never goes out of style.

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One Comment

  1. Jules
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Awesome article, it makes me want to visit the collection. It’s a shame some of these games didn’t survive.

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  • By Paris: Life and Luxury « Exhibition Inquisition on August 4, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    [...] rooms are devoted to themes of the scientific pursuits in the home, music, money, playing games, and party time.  A big wow moment is in the last room where the reunited companion paintings by [...]

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      All Hail Tiberius, Least Media-Savvy of the Roman Emperors

      Tiberius was proclaimed Roman emperor on September 17 in AD 14, exactly 2,000 years ago.

      He was also a bit wacko. “He was the least media-savvy emperor you could imagine,” says curator David Saunders, who has been in charge of this bronze portrait of Tiberius which leaves us on September 22. He point to this description found in the writings of Cassius Dio:

      Tiberius was a patrician of good education, but he had a most peculiar nature. He never let what he desired appear in his conversation, and what he said he wanted he usually did not desire at all. On the contrary, his words indicated the exact opposite of his real purpose; he denied all interest in what he longed for, and urged the claims of what he hated. He would exhibit anger over matters that were far from arousing his wrath, and make a show of affability where he was most vexed…In short, he thought it bad policy for the sovereign to reveal his thoughts; this was often the cause, he said, of great failures, whereas by the opposite course, far more and greater successes were attained.

      Moreover, David tells us, “Tiberius’s accession itself was a farrago: Tiberius sort-of feigning reluctance, the Senate bullying him, he being all, ‘Well, if-I-have-to,’ and in the end—according to Suetonius—saying he’ll do it as long as he can retire.”

      Suetonius is full of great, albeit spurious, anecdotes about poor old Tiberius, David reports. “When someone addressed him as ‘My Lord,’ it is said, Tiberius gave warning that no such insult should ever again be thrown at him.”

      Happy accession, My Lord!

      Portrait Head of Tiberius (“The Lansdowne Tiberius”), early 1st century A.D., Roman. The J. Paul Getty Museum

      Statue of Tiberius (detail), Roman, A.D. 37, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Laboratorio di Conservazione e Restauro. Currently on view at the Getty Villa following conservation and study.


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