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Caravaggio’s use of a light gray ground in this early work reflects his training in the North Italian painting tradition. Beginning in about 1595/96, he adopted the brownish ground characteristics of Roman painting. Caravaggio composed The Cardsharps from individually conceived figures painted directly on the canvas without the aid of preparatory drawings. For example, the gloved hand of the central cheat was entirely realized before the figure of the other cheat was placed over it. As a result of this working method, several pentimenti are presented in the painting. Caravaggio changed the position of the hand, the cards, and the belt of the cheat on the far right. He also moved the stripes on his doublet. These changes can be seen in the infrared reflectogram details.
Perhaps in lieu of underdrawing, Caravaggio used incisions to place elements on the canvas. In The Cardsharps there are only a few incisions in the wet ground, such as in the dupe’s fingertips and the edges of the cards, but this technique was greatly expanded in later works. Other innovative painting techniques in the Kimbell’s painting include the artist’s manipulation of the wet paint to enhance the realism of surface textures. When Caravaggio painted the silk brocade of the central cheat, he blotted the wet paint with his fingers or thumb. He also used the butt end of the brush to described the black embroidery on the collar of the dupe.
The Cardsharps is among the best preserved works by Caravaggio. Even the delicate red lake glazes over the vermilion red hearts on the cards are intact. The removal of a later addition, a six-inch-high (14 cm) horizontal canvas strip, from the top edge restored the composition to its original dimensions. The removal of the lining in the 1987 restoration uncovered a stamped seal on the reverse. This stamp, identifying works from Cardinal del Monte’s collection, had been previously discovered on Caravaggio’s Gypsy Fortune Teller at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.