Monday, July 18, 2011

The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds

In nature, there is a peculiar parasite known as a roundworm. Now, there are several thousand different types of roundworms, one of which is referred to as a nematode. What makes this microscopic creature so unique is its deceptive means of perpetuating the species. Basically, the nematode perches itself on a branch or leaf where ants are known to frequent. As the ants come by and discover the roundworm, they are quick to consume it. This might all sound rather anticlimactic but it gets better . . . a lot better.

The nematode doesn't die. Filled with its own eggs and now inside the ant, it is very much alive and situates itself into the abdomen. As it settles inside, the ant's backside begins to turn bright red. Over the years, scientists have suggested that this isn't so much a sign of infection but rather an after-effect of the parasite, and done in an attempt to make the ant more appealing to passing birds. If the ant is brighter and ends up spotted by a bird and is consumed, the parasitic species will continue on. For you see, once the ant is digested, the eggs are harmlessly released into the bowels of the bird which then dispenses the growing larvae through defecation.

Why the gross analogy about this parasite? Because what good can come from deception? Aside from compromising integrity in humans, deception leaves a wake of destructive circumstances to which others will eventually fall victim. The argument can be made that momentary success could be experienced if deception is utilized, but for the most part, it won't last and chances are others have had to endure sudden and unfair consequences.

The Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds, by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), depicts a scene in which two women are playing cards with a gentleman. Not much a gentleman, though, as the viewer can clearly see he is producing two Aces from behind his belt during a moment of distraction. Furthermore, and ever so intriguing, is the intense setting in which all of this is taking place. Clearly, the maidservant, the courtesan in the middle, and the female on the right are all showing some sign of nervousness and suspicion.

It can be said that the fair lady on the right is a bit oblivious to the deception that is unfolding when you consider her emotionless, somewhat dimwitted expression. Yet, I would argue that de La Tour was suggesting she was about to catch on based upon her gaze. For the rest of the scene, a lot can be offered up for questioning and interpretation. Does the maidservant know what's going on? Is she in on the con? Appearing to offer the courtesan a fresh glass of wine, I would suggest she is either nervously involved or doing her best to conceal the deceiver on the left. Knowing this era, the courtesan is obviously someone of great wealth and/or influence given her intricate hairstyle and provocative clothing. But is she really being duped? Or is she strong enough and smart enough to smell a con? Is she about to fully realize what is going on and take action? Lastly, and admittedly a bit of a stretch on my part, is the male deceiver actually a male or a female in disguise?

What a few fans of 14th and 15th Century French art may not know is that this is a later version of the original painting, The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs. When comparing the two paintings, one can clearly see a less ambiguous scene in the Clubs version as opposed to the Diamonds version.  In the Clubs, the male has facial hair and a much more dastardly stare in his eyes; the maidservant's eyes are less obvious implying she may only be sheepish about interrupting the game by serving the wine. As well, the female on the right sits with a somewhat dumbfounded grin on her face and appears to be looking off the table as if none the wiser. These distinct differences suggest that the intended theme of the painting was to be much more straight forward. When the Diamonds version was revealed, however, further mystery into what was being presented became obvious, and gave you and I--the audience--a chance to really run amok with our interpretations.

Should you get the chance to compare the two paintings side-by-side, relish the opportunity! It is not often such subtle changes in art can be clearly seen and felt. What also makes this an extremely entertaining piece is the chance to speculate and wonder; the chance to dig into our ability to interpret art, and the evocation of theme and emotion. Much like every other piece of art I've attempted to write about, this one too reveals a chance to learn a little bit more about life. Because, in essence, we've all been deceived merely by the first iteration of this masterpiece. In this case, though, I'm willing to accept de La Tour's con with open arm or arms.


  1. in fact the 'fair lady' on the right is a male. He's a young boy, and it looks to me as though the two of them are trying to con him out of some money, perhaps.

  2. Does anyone have any info on who the ppl in the paining are? A friend of mine came across this painting while doing an art project and it's like looking in a mirror. I look exactly the same as the cortesan it's weird!!!!

  3. According to the research I did for this painting, Anonymous (#2), I don't think there is any recording for whom de La Tour included in his piece. I'd say you're safe to imply he foresaw the need to include you. ;)