Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art
Chess was a lifelong passion for Marcel Duchamp, who once stated, "I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists."1 A competitive, award-winning player, Duchamp incorporated the game into his art throughout his career--literally, as in this early painting of his brothers, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and in increasingly complex ways later on. This piece shows the artist's interest in Cubism, specifically what he called his "demultiplication" technique. Each head is made up of many overlapping successive planes, with chess pieces floating in the indefinite spaces that surround them. 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. This emphasis on the mental over the retinal reflects a tendency that grew stronger throughout Duchamp's remarkable career. Emily Hage, from Masterpieces from the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Impressionism and Modern Art (2007), p. 158.
1) Quoted in Andy Soltis, "Duchamp and the Art of Chess' Appeal," n.d., unidentified newspaper clipping, object file, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art.