Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Card Sharps 1790c.

The Rev. Matthew William Peters RA 1742 - 1814

The Card Sharps, The Rev. Matthew William Peters RA
Oil on canvas
18th Century
18 1/2 x 22 1/4 inches 46.8 x 56.3 cm
Matthew William Peters was born in the Isle of Wight, but received his training in Dublin. He came to London to study under Thomas Hudson, but did not find any particular encouragement in London for one who had not made the Grand Tour. In the early 1760s he was sent to Rome by the Dublin Society, and there he worked in Pompeo Batoni's Academy in 1762 and in 1763 was a member of the Florence Academy. He was back in Dublin by 1765.

Peters was capable of working in a number of styles. His best-known works are the smiling beauties, risque figures that show their teeth, in a number of similar, mildly suggestive portraits. These are influenced by the work of Greuze to which Peters was exposed in Francve in the 1770s. These images reached a large audience through engraving, and were later held against Peters when he tool Holy Orders in 1781.

The present painting - of which there is a version in the collection of Brooks's Club- represents a different source of inspiration. The genre topos of the card sharps, in which a dupe in being deceived by his opponent and an accomplice was popularised by Caravaggio and his followers in the seventeenth century. Like the companion subject of the Fortune Teller - which Peters also painted - it was susceptible of a moralising interpretation, warning the viewer of the dangers of gambling, or youth, or easy money, but here it is appreciated simply as a humorous subject. The gestures of the sharps are too exaggerated and the naivety of the dupe too extreme to provoke any response more than laughter. Yet the topicality of the old subject is reinforced when one considers to what extent gambling at cards ruled the lives of affluent Georgians of both sexes, and how at resorts such as Bath and Brighton, and indeed in every inn, there might be men whose living came from lightening the purses of the foolish.
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