This painting (hanging in Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, USA) follows The Fortune Teller in depicting a scene of sharp practice which very well might have been based in reality. This Wikipedia article on The Cardsharps mentions realism (the unglamorous theme, the ragged gloves, the dramatic tension) as the quality that made Caravaggio famous. The artist’s late works were also highly realistic — appallingly so to some contemporaries — but the realism evolved and overflowed into the artist’s methods. He would paint from live models directly on canvas (sometimes marking parts of it by incisions), neglecting the ever important part of preliminary drawing (Check also this article on The Cardsharps published by The Independent).
Yet this piece, though realistic in conception, shows some elements of theatricality and artificiality, especially when compared to Caravaggio’s late religious paintings with more defined interiors and exteriors. For instance, the dupe’s face shows exaggerated saintliness and innocence — no doubt intended by the artist to epitomize just these qualities — while the man who peeks at his cards seems overly agitated. The resulting tension may seem so vivid as to distract us from the overall composition, in other words, too vivid. The extreme psychological contrasts blur somewhat the compositional unity — but they evince a distinct charm of their own.
I think that we can soundly hypothesize that this charm originates not only from the theme or from the actors, but also from the artist himself. While the notion of the loss of innocence takes the center stage in the painting, we are allowed to guess as to what place the painting itself was taking in Caravaggio’s life — could he have been taken emotionally by the theme, could he have seen in it some elements of his own situation? Indeed, could he be the missing link in this drama, having experienced it first hand, absorbed it and transferred it on canvas? Though the answers to the questions regarding the meta realm of this masterpiece are destined to remain in guessing land, the inquiry in itself adds another dimension to our understanding of the painting.
To get back to the technical details, it is the interplay of light and dark colors that supports the tension in this busy composition. Consisting mostly of black, brown, wine and dark, heavy yellows, it is incised with stripes and patches of white, which destabilize the entire set-up, generating a sense of precipice, or collapse. In this “mess,” the duped youth submerges into a very dangerous place — he is in the center of a whirlwind, without noticing it. The overall effect makes me want to scream “Watch out!”