In his 1861 catalogue of the pictures at Blenheim Palace, George Scharf had effusive praise for this scene of peasants by David Teniers II, calling it "exquisitely finished" and "very excellent". This impeccably preserved copper depicts several peasants gathered around a small table, watching as a bearded card-player at left fans his cards face down, staring intently at his hand. Across the table, an elegantly dressed younger man holds his cards upright and visible to the viewer, his eyes fixed on his opponent and cheeks slightly flushed. Behind the group, two men enjoy the warmth of the hearth, one hunched over his glass, the other seated on a bench, resting his head against the fireplace, in which a sliver of red and yellow fire is visible.
Although the composition of the present painting was clearly inspired by models developed by Adriaen Brouwer such as the Card Players now in Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen (inv. 218), Teniers exposes the faces of his figures to a greater degree, and further enlivens the scene with accents of vibrant color, such as the blue and red jackets. Teniers treated the subject of card games frequently throughout his prolific career, often employing the grouping of players and bystanders seen here. A similar party appears in Youths playing cards now in Kassel, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (inv. GK 139) of 1633, the first year Teniers began dating his paintings. The owl in the Kassel picture, associated in the 17th-century Netherlands with blindness and folly, suggests a comment on peasants who squander their time carousing indoors and drinking (see M. Klinge, David Teniers the younger: paintings, drawings, exhibition catalogue, Antwerp, 1991, p. 30). Teniers likely would have intended a similar moralizing meaning for the present painting, even though the figures are more dignified than those in the Kassel picture.
The virtuoso brushwork -- evident in details such as the hairs on the chin of the man in the blue cap, the stub of a candle above the fireplace, and the reflection of the Raeren jug at lower left -- suggests that Teniers conceived of this work primarily as a technical tour-de-force meant to impress the viewer with his painterly skill. Scenes of card-players displaying comparably brilliant technique include Teniers' Le Bonnet Blanc of 1644 formerly in the Holford Collection and The Card Players now in a private collection (see Klinge, op. cit, nos. 33, 34). The latter work also shares with our painting such motifs as the wooden card table, jug, open hatch at upper left, and figure of the man leaning against the hearth. As noted by Klinge, Teniers' frequent return to this subject reflects his interest in exploring different solutions to the same artistic problem, or "nuances in variations played on a single theme." (Klinge, op. cit., p. 116).
In the 19th century, this painting hung at Blenheim Palace, residence of the Duke of Marlborough, before being sold by George Spencer-Churchill (1844-1892), 8th Duke of Marlborough, in the storied Blenheim sale of 1886. This sale was a sensation even in the United States, with The New York Times reporting "There was a large attendance and spirited bidding". At that time, Peasants playing cards in an interior entered the collection of Stephenson Clarke (1824-1891), the prolific British collector and businessman known for growing his family's Northumberland coal business into the largest in the United Kingdom. His art collection, carefully chosen with the assistance of fabled art dealer Martin Colnaghi, was formed almost entirely in the 1880s and inspired by his love of the highest quality 17th-century Dutch and Flemish pictures.
(fig. 1) Blenheim palace catalogue cover; Christie's, London, 26 June 1886.