Preferring to paint his major compositions in his Paris studio, Deutsch used sketches he had made on his trips to Cairo in 1886, 1890 and 1898 as inspiration for his work. He embellished the final compositions with items from his personal collection of Near Eastern artifacts: mashrabiyyah woodwork, textiles and painted ceramic tiles. His eye for Ottoman collectanea is evident in The Chess Game which portrays the figures seated on an Oriental carpet with Damascus tiles as a backdrop and a mother-of-pearl inlaid table at their feet. He used some of these same props several years later in his 1903 picture Le fumeur (fig. 1).
The Chess Game shows Deutsch's dexterity in transcribing a scene with breathtaking accuracy so as to give the painting an almost photographic quality. He was a keen observer of detail and the depiction of the figure's gestures and expressions, their clothing and their architectural surroundings all serve to enhance the verisimilitude of the scene. The game of chess was widely popular among the upper classes throughout the Near East. Though it had first been introduced to Europe during the Moorish rule in Spain, it retained its exoticism in Deutsch's time. The view of the men leisurely passing time over a game of chess conveys the impression of a life far removed from the troubles of the realities of industrial France.
Rendered with meticulous draftmanship, the rich palette and high finish of The Chess Game are the trademark of Deutsch's most highly regarded works. The jewel-like quality of the chromatic contrasts and brushstroke is echoed by its small-scale format which he reserved for his compositions of more intimate scenes.
(fig. 1) Ludwig Deutsch, Le Fumeur, 1903.
Sold, Christie's, London, 17 June 1999, lot 28.