Two Pieces of Art Visualizing Chess Game from the Metropolitan Museum of Art


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Iranian Chess Set

I chose to write my paper on an Iranian chess set (12th Century) now on display at the Metropolitan Museum with the pieces colored in green and brown. Literary tradition attributes northern India to the origin of chess, which was hundreds of years before its inception. The game was introduced to Iran in the late Sasanian period between 224 to 651 AD. The ruler of India sent an envoy to challenge a number of chess pieces and declared that his continued payment of tributes depended on the Iranian king’s ability to decode the point of the game. The chess set was made during the reign of Khusrau and are described in the Sasanian Middle Persian texts that retell the history of when chess was introduced as a competitive game between the Indians and Persians. From the time that chess was established to this day, it continues to be considered one of the most popular board games ever invented. People from all over the world learn how to play it. It is also a game that allows everyone to unwind. During the 12th and 13th centuries, stone paste was the material for making molded objects of different sizes. This technique became very popular during the Seljuq period. The pieces on the Iranian chess set were constructed with stone paste, and painted by hand. Sixteen of the pieces from this set are covered in monochrome-glaze ceramics and turquoise glaze. The other fifteen pieces are coated with manganese. The pieces themselves are meant to be intellectual versions of the figures to which they refer. The Iranian chess set is considered to be one of the earliest examples of old chessboards. This particular chess set requires one to visualize the pieces created in different forms since they are built in different shapes. Generally, it is easy to identify them because they are placed in the specific spaces of a regular chessboard. The Pawns are the small pieces in the front row that have very small knobs on top of them. The Rooks are the pieces with the triangular ends depicting the letter V. The Knights, also known by the letter L movement that they make are the pieces with an upside down triangle representing their heads. There are two small circles on the top of the triangle, which are the eyes of the Knight. The Bishops are the pieces with the slanted portions facing forward. Since the Bishop can only move in a diagonal on the chessboard, the triangles provide a clue to one of the game rules. The King, also known as the weakest and most significant chess piece, is represented by the big throne. The Queen, also known as the most powerful piece, is the small throne. Another way to interpret the difference between the King and the Queen is that the King’s throne has a dark color and the queen is a light color. Looking at this image closely, the missing part of the chess set is the 64 squares of the chessboard. When chessboards with squares did not exist, people would create their own chess pieces, and establish their own imaginary chess-board. The pieces were usually placed on a white board without drawing lines on them. Being able to examine multiple images of the same chess set, one of them shows a Pawn moving one or two square forward, which is how the game usually starts. [footnoteRef:1] [1: The Metropolitan Museum of Art “Chess Set, 12th, Century” ]

The Chess Players

Now that I have discussed an image that depicts one version of a chess set, I am now going to dive into my visual analysis on an image depicting two men playing chess in the United States of America with a new version of a chess set that is being used during this generation. In the painting titled The Chess Players, (1876) which is also displayed at the Metropolitan Museum, (fig. 2) there is a chess game between two men in an artistic, Renaissance-inspired room of a home in Philadelphia. The artist, Thomas Eakins, depicts his father Benjamin Eakins who is the man watching the chess match in the painting. All three men are dressed in black suits with white button down shirts, black vests, black socks, and black dress shoes. They are also wearing black-colored ties. Two men are wearing bow ties and one man is wearing a necktie. Two men have grey hair and one man has brown hair. They are also looking at the chessboard. Two men are sitting on green and brown chairs while the man in the middle is standing on a red carpet. The man standing has his right hand on the top of a chair and his left hand on his hip. The man sitting on the left chair has his left hand on his chest and his right hand on his lap. He could be doing what his heart desires and that is to win this game. The man sitting on the right chair has his right hand on his face and his left hand on the table. He must be thinking about his next move. The man on the left has his right leg over his left knee. In fact, he is the only man in the image wearing glasses. He must be wearing them to carefully see his next move. The man on the right has both of his feet back in the front of the chair. In the back of the image behind the man standing is a very old clock that was used in the 1800s. To read the time on the clock, I had to examine the image closely by zooming in. Reading the clock carefully, it reads 1:13. Above the old clock, there is a statue of an old queen. Above the female statue and the clock, there is a painting hung on the wall. In the back of the painting on the left, there is a statue of an ancient soldier. On the very far right of the image, there is a green and brown stool. Next to the man on the right, there is a black cat playing with its fur instead of watching the chess match. In the back of the painting on the right, there is a map of the globe on top of a cabinet. Looking at the image in depth, it seems like there are bottles of beer inside the cabinet. That must be where alcoholic drinks are kept. Next to the man on the left, there are two bottles of liquid and three wine glasses on another piece of furniture. One bottle has wine in it and the other one has juice. Both of the bottles have different sizes. The juice bottle is constructed like a tall bottle and the wine bottle is a regular design. Two of the glasses have wine in them and one is empty. Apparently, there are three cups of liquid surrounding the chess table. It looks like all three men need a drink while playing and watching the game. From what I can tell when visualizing this image of the chess players, the man on the left is playing white and the man on the right is playing black. So far, the man playing white has a knight, a rook, two pawns, and a bishop. The man playing black has four pawns, two bishops, a knight and a rook at the moment. In the middle of the table below the chessboard is an open drawer. That must be the space where all the chess pieces are kept when a game is not happening. On the drawer below the circular handle used to open and close the drawer with an inscription written in the color red that is very hard to read. Inside it, there is the head of the white queen. Obviously, both players have lost their queens and are attempting to get their pawns across the board to earn their most powerful piece back. Based on how the game is going in the painting, it looks like a pretty tight match. Both of the players are thinking carefully about their moves and observing the others’ attack plans. If I had a vision of which player would have a chance of winning, it might be the man playing black.

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He has half of his pawns that he can move across the board to earn his queen back. He can also use his strong pieces to check the white king depending on the square it is on. His chances of getting his queen back or checkmating the king without the queen are very good. In some circumstances, the man playing white can use its rook to capture his black pawns to prevent his opponent from earning his queen back. He can also earn his queen back if he moves two of ones of his pawns to other side of the board. Even though that is the case, his rook still needs to be protected or else his chances of winning could be diminished. It is very hard to know because anything can happen unexpectedly. One bad move can result in your opponent trapping your king. Since Benjamin Eakins is watching instead of playing, I also visualize that he would want to challenge the winner of the chess match that is occurring. There is still a long way to go before it happens. It connects to these phrases: it is not over until it is over, and never take anything for granted until you have completed the task. Now that I have explained how I visualize Eakin’s image, I now want to discuss historical information that I have researched to understand the purpose of his painting. The image “Chess Players” represents two elements of Eakins’s work: his continued concern for domestic work and the intensive naturalism, planning and meticulousness of his sporting scenes. Italian renaissance prototypes are suggested in the deliberately lucid arrangement of planes and in strictly earlier perspectives of The Chess Players. However, Eakins’s painting depicts all the real authenticity marks of fascinating player representation, a space where the game can be played, the interior designs and the chess pieces on the board. The singularity of Eakins ‘ depiction of chess players in the iconography of US art can be measured by the few examples of the genre before the time of Eakins. The chess board game was also practiced in Philadelphia clubs and tournament intercity games (1860 and 1875), in correspondence and telegraph games with clubs from New York and Boston. The names of Eakins, Gardel or Holmes do not appear in the known participants ‘ lists, emphasizing their recreational status as occasionally amateur. Philadelphia became more energetic as a result of hosting the Fourth American Chess Congress in 1876 at the time Eakins painted this setting. It was first called an American Centennial Championship in the United States, to attract world participation. Sixty games were played in 14 days in August 1876 and were open to the public in the evening. The game itself was less important than players, and the context was not really observed, with many representations conceived in allegorical terms.

The Chess Players also shows the hard work of Eakins, which is confirmed by a sheet in the collection of the museum. This drawing containing studies of perspective and furnishings of the space of the room characterizes Eakins ‘ drawings, which have always been made for specific purposes. For the Centennial exhibition, Eakins sent the painting to the art jury who accepted it together with two other oils and two watercolors. He also sent it to the Metropolitan Art Museum for establishing relationships. Despite the apparent novelty of its subject matter in Eakins ‘ work, The Chess Players painting, as well as a host of very personal associations, shows Eakins ‘ long-time interest in the mental workings of highly performed people as an analog of his age.

Chess Players and many of the later works of Eakins are his moving meditation on human life. Chess here is a metaphor for human life and achievement, and the players, spectators, artists and visitors all work to reflect on the nature of the fight. Eakins pointed out that by his artistic approach, the artistic display and decision to offer the painting to the Metropolitan Museum, he considered The Chess Players to be an important work. In addition to an oil study by Gardel and a sophisticated perspective drawings, the painting itself is carefully crafted and shows a detailed, accurate and layered paint surface. This effort Eakins could make for a little picture because he was not obliged either to make a living of his art or to serve the interests of patrons, thanks to his father’s continuous support.


In conclusion, there are numerous versions of chess images being depicted in different art museums around the world. Visualizing a chess game happening in a painting, discovering a model of an old chess set at a museum, and doing research on the history of competition from a painter, has given me more knowledge regarding the establishment of chess and how people have embraced it for generations.


  • Clapper, Michael. Thomas Eakins and The Chess Players, The University of Chicago Press. Smithsonian American Art Museum Pg. 79
  • Hauptman, William. Thomas Eakins’s The Chess Players Replayed, In Philadelphia, they play chess in all houses. Emerson, W. Ralph. The Metropolitan Museum, Pg. 154 – 157
  • Weinberg, H. Barbara. Thomas Eakins and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jeff L. Rosenheim. The Metropolitan Museum, Pg. 19
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Chess Set, 12th Century,” ca. 1971.193a-ff
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Chess Players,” ca. 81.14

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