Chess in Art

Chess in Art Book Review

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“History of chess in paintings.” 1100-1900 AD

Chess has been around for about one thousand five hundred years that the period from its recognition as a sport, with its first champion in Wilhelm Steinitz in 1886, is but a short part of its life. Before that, and for more than a millennia, it had already figured prominently across different societies where it laid roots. Its influence had already been very pervasive, and apparently it had also been as fascinating as it is now that it was made the subject of art in its various forms – of music, literature, and painting.

herel photo
Peter Herel Raabenstein

In Chess in Art, Peter Herel Raabenstein presents a collection of paintings about chess from 1100 to 1900. Raabenstein is a painter who also happens to be a chess player, and his work is necessarily a book of art. Chess players, however, should see it as a history book of chess through paintings. Either way, chess and art share many aesthetic values that chess players will find much to appreciate about it.

As a history of chess, this book is a panorama of the game over a period of eight hundred years. It places chess with the people who have played it, in the places where it first bore special significance, and in the various functions it served.

The paintings are arranged chronologically and the first truth that could be gleaned from all two hundred seventy two of them is of chess gradually breaking through the social stratification of medieval Europe. We see it as the exclusive game of Kings and nobilities in the 11th century, and then slowly it descends the social ladder until it is finally enjoyed by just about everyone in the near present period. Transcending social classes is perhaps chess’ greatest triumph.

We see also chess here transcending cultures and religion. Priests are portrayed playing each other, as do Arabs while probably resting from their trade. These paintings contrast powerfully and forebode chess becoming the international game between people of different creed and nationality that it is now.

Chess is likewise portrayed in its functions across many generations. We see it as the royal game, the preferred entertainment of the European aristocracy, and the central activity of American social gatherings. Obviously, two or three centuries ago chess was a game for all occasions that held people together. Now, it is largely a solitary activity, especially for those who wish to master it.

In all, it is very enlightening of this book to show us what chess was and what it meant to people across many epochs of history. For this chess content alone, we highly recommend it.

As a book of art, this is something that should be enjoyed and appreciated by chess players, too. Chess is art after all, and chess players generally have a keen sense of aesthetics. Quite truthfully, it would be out of character for a chess player to lack even the slightest interest for paintings.  

This book gives chess players the opportunity to study paintings if they are not too knowledgeable about it yet. We’ve figured the best way to use it is to read the introduction to the creators of the paintings presented, refer to their pieces, and then pay close attention to their style and school of thought.

This will expose the reader to the many movements in painting, for instance Impressionism and Romanticism. Cross-referencing then becomes necessary as the book is not a text that explains these movements. If done the learning process is remarkable and the knowledge acquired invaluable.  

Then it all becomes clear that chess and painting are very similar in many ways. They are both medium of self-expression, and both are products of their times. They influence their era, and they are influenced by it. The general movements in painting and the different ages of chess were all brought about by the general mood and intellectual atmosphere of their age.

We’ve learned, in fact, that the period of European Romanticism, generally between 1800-1890, gave painting and chess the same artistic qualities and emotional motif. Romantic paintings saw powerful expression of feelings, while Romantic chess saw expression of beauty in the swashbuckling, attacking game.

It would certainly be a positive measure of this book if it could get us to associate some paintings we soon see to their likely movement, and to understand the artistic and intellectual outlook of its painter.  

In all, it is very enlightening of this book to show us what chess was and what it meant to people across many epochs of history. For this chess content alone, we highly recommend it.

This book, in all, superbly juxtaposes of two great art forms – chess and painting — and illustrates perfectly how art’s varied media can complement one another to enhance the artistic experience. We enthusiastically recommend it to all chess players and lovers of high art alike.

Eugene Manlapao

Eugene Manlapao

Hi, I'm from the Philippines and I hold a degree in Bachelor of Arts, Major in English, Creative Writing. I'm a corporate fellow by profession and a certified lover of chess and literature. When free from work, I scramble dividing my time among my wife and two lovely daughters, devouring literary classics and chess books, participating in over-the-board tournaments, playing casual blitz and rapid games online, and writing chess as well as non-chess articles. My love for chess has had me bitten by the chess set-collection bug. I'll be very happy to receive comments to my articles and reviews for Chess Equipments.

3 thoughts on “Chess in Art Book Review”

  1. “Transcending social classes is perhaps chess’ greatest triumph”

    “Chess is art after all.”

    On point! Nice write up! 🙂

    Reply

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