Die Schachspieler and the Morphy Anecdote, Pt. I

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Die Schachspieler and The Morphy Anecdote,  Pt. I - the background


In 1888 there was an ongoing controversy over a Paul Morphy anecdote provided by Gilbert R. Frith (I had written on this anecdote in Paul Morphy - Back in New Orleans).  The contentious correspondence included such laudable chess luminaries as John A. Galbreath and Miron Hazelton.

Before getting into the controversy, let's examine the subject of the Morphy Anecdote - an 1831 painting by Friedrich Moritz August Retzsch entitled, Die Schachspieler, Les joueurs d'échecs or The Chess Players.

We'll start with the painting itself and a wonderfully brief description provided by ArtFact in the auctioning off of the original:

"Friedrich Moritz August Retzsch (1779-1857) Die Schachspieler oil on panel 12 x 15.3/8in. (32.3 x 39cm.) Provenance Queen Isabella II of Spain (1830-1904). Monsieur Chappuis, a gift from the above. E. Constantin, Paris, acquired from the above in 1898, and thenceby descent. Lot Notes Moritz Retzsch, like many artists of his generation, was fascinated by Faust. Die Schachspieler, while not an explicitly Faustian episode, is full of Faustian flavour in its rich allegory of the Devil's battle for a man's soul. The position of the chessboard, to take just one element, placed squarely on the lid of a sarcophagus, leaves the spectator in no doubt as to this particular endgame. The two principal protagonists in this drama face one another across the board. Satan, resplendent in his green cape and a red-feathered cap, glowers across at Man, whose soft, classical features are buried deep in troubled contemplation. Man is watched over by his guardian angel. Her dark expression, however, hints that no intervention is planned and Satan's seat - his throne -boasts the sinister decoration of a fierce, snarling lion's head,its feet resting on the classic momento mori, a grizzly skull, indicating the likely outcome of the match. The chess pieces themselves represent the struggle. The black King's modelling echoes the mantle and cap of his master, urging his soldiers onwards. The figure immediately in front of the King tramples on a cross, alluding to Satan's avowed aim of destroying Christ's church, while the griffin-headed monster to his left raises his left arm as though in peace meanwhile hiding a vicious stiletto behind his back. Such terrible intent is repeated throughout the black pieces, who advance, seemingly without respite, on the virtuous white set. This advance is rhymed by the approach of the spider towards Man which, with its power to spin a fatal web, symbolises Satan's mission to ensnare the believer. Offering some insight into the brooding personality of Retzsch is Mrs Jameson, an English commentator who, upon visiting the artist's studio in Dresden in 1833, wrote: 'I saw in Retzsch's atelier...the head of an angel smiling. He said he was often pursued by dark, haunted by melancholy forebodings, desponding over himself and his art "and he resolved to create an angel for himself, which would smile upon him out of heaven"'  (Mrs Jameson, Visits and Sketches at Home and Abroad, London, 1834, p. 125). "


A great article appeared in The Saturday Magazine, Volume 10. May 6, 1837, which gave the following sketch (photography was in it's infancy at that time) and an involved explanation:

                    Is not thin type well cut, in every part;
                  Full of rich cunning, filled with Zeuxian art?—Quarles.

     We return with pleasure to notice the works of this gifted artist; and now present to our readers a copy of one of them, which appears to us
astonishing in its conception and execution, and will, if we mistake not, become the best known of all that he has executed.
     Retzsch's several published outlines are familiar to us; and, although there is not a single instance of cross-shading, no colour of any kind, the interest they excite impels us to return to them again and again ; and every time we look at them, we see some new beauty. So completely, indeed, do they take possession of our minds, that we forget the total absence of those incidental aids which the higher branches of the art call in to their assistance.
     What, then, is the secret of Moritz Retzsch ?—" the witchcraft he has used?"—We should answer,—-A deep moral feeling, which appeals directly to the heart,—a perfect comprehension of his subject, and correct drawing. In this latter quality, indeed, he is almost without a rival in modern days. He has been compared to Flaxman, who finished some most expressive outlines, but whose classical severity of style must always fall short in popularity, of Retzsch, with his kindly household feelings, " common Nature's daily food," mingled, occasionally, with all that is awful and sublime.
     We are fond of emblems and allegories. The old wood-cut emblems of Alciatus * [footnote  * An Italian who wrote, in Latin, early in the sixteenth century, and whose volume of emblems went through many editions, and obtained universal credit.]  contain a mine of good and useful advice; those of George Wither, engraved by Crispin Pass, and " quickened with metrical illustrations, both moral and divine," may be examined with advantage by the candid reader; and even Quarles, though full of strange fancies, quaintly expressed, speaks a language sufficiently intelligible for the improvement of the heart and mind; and this, we maintain, ought to be the chief aim of art, as well as of literature.
     There are, perhaps, not a few persons who, however unwilling to listen to instruction in the common course of teaching, may, by the " ocular language" of a well-imagined emblem, have been informed of their fault and danger, or reminded df certain duties, and risen up from the contemplation of the subject, wiser and better than they sat down. This remark may, in some happy instances, be found true with reference to our present engraving, the subject of which is, Satan Playing At Chess With Man, For His Soul.
    The peculiar powers of the artist have here a fine field for their exertion. The finely-formed, but wicked and terrific, countenance of Satan is directed towards his victim, whom he is watching with a wariness and stern purpose, that make us tremble for the beautiful and youthful antagonist. The fallen angel, who " was a murderer from the beginning," is robed in a mantle, with broad folds ; one hand is supporting his chin, as if he were intent on the effect of some deeply-plotted move, and the other grasps a figure of Peace, which he is taking from the board. The young man rests his head upon his hand, as if he were fearful of impending ruin, and desirous of averting it. Between these two figures, and behind the board, stands the Good Genius of Man, anxious and distressed, as if fearful for the youth.
      The attitude of this angel is beautiful; the countenance is of a pensive*cast, the hands are clasped, the wings half-spread ; the head is gently turned towards the important charge, and we feel afraid, that at the next move those wings will bear the guardian spirit away. With regard to the Chessmen : on the side of the demon, the King represents himself; his Queen is Pleasure, pressing forward in front of all; his officers are, Indolence, like a great swine ; Pride, strutting about with a peacock's tail; Falsehood, with one hand on his heart, and the other
holding a dagger behind him; Unbelief, trampling on the Cross; Anger, &c.; the Pawns are Doubts ; and, alas for devoted man! the only pieces which he has taken are Anger, like a turkey-cock, and one Doubt; while Satan has secured several cherub forms, which are the Pawns of Man, and are symbolical of Prayer. There is no little beauty in the thought of introducing prayers under the emblem of pawns; inasmuch, as, if persevering and effectual, they may recover the vantage-ground which had been lost. Humility, Affection, and Innocence, are also taken ; but Religion, Truth, and Hope are still left. All the pieces are well set forth ; and it is evident that Satan's arc coming down in full force against those
of his antagonist.
     This design requires a long study, and affords much matter for reflection ; every part will bear the most minute scrutiny ; and it is scarcely possible for any one to quit it, without a deep sense of the moral which is conveyed by the allegory.
     We cannot conclude this paper, without alluding to a fine passage in The Pilgrim's Progress, and expressing a wish, that the issue of the contest, so spiritedly depicted by Retzsch, might prove as happy to the party in jeopardy, and as favourable to the interests of religion, as that of Christian's fight with Apollyon.
     This sore combat lasted for above half a day, even till Christian was almost quite spent. For you must know, that Christian, by reason of his wounds, must needs grow weaker and weaker. Then Apollyon, espying his opportunity, began to gather up close to Christian, and, wrestling with him, gave him a dreadful fall; and with that Christian's sword Hew out of his hand. Then said Apollyon, "I am sure of thee now!" And with that he had almost pressed him to death, so that Christian began to despair of his life. But as God would have it, while Apollyon was fetching his last blow, thereby to make a full end of this good man, Christian nimbly reached out his hand for his sword, saying, "Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I jail I shall arise" (Mic. vii. 8); and with that gave him a deadly thrust, which made him give back, as one that had received
his mortal wound. Christian perceiving that, made at him again, saying,—"Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, throuyh Him that loved us" (Rom. viii. 37); and with that Apollyon spread forth his dragon's wings, and sped him away, that Christian saw him no more.
     The reference to Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress reminds us, in the first place, that it has never been adequately illustrated, and, in the next, that Retzsch's pencil and graver might, in all probability, be well and profitably employed in embellishing the First Part of that extraordinary work. Would not his master-hand find ample scope in delineating such scenes as the following ?
1. Christian leaves the City of Destruction, and meets Evangelist.
2. Christian comes to the Cross, and is cased of his burden.
3. Christian ascends the Hill Difficulty.
4. Mistrust and Timorous leave Christian.
5. Christian fights Apollyon.
6. The Valley of the Shadow of Death.
7. Vanity Fair.
8. The Trial of Christian and Faithful.
9. Christian and Hopeful escape from Doubting Castle.


Our Monthly  1872
     Pictures are often more expressive, and impressive, too, than language; the easel of the painter, or the burin of the graver, than the written or spoken descriptions of the most accomplished writer, or the most graphic and eloquent speaker. No words could so display the grandeur and beauty of nature, ?? do the paintings of Church and Bierstadt. No written or spoken expressions could set forth "The Rake's Progress" as vividly as the sketches of Hogarth. No language could s? thoroughly expose to the popular mind the follies of the Ecumenical Council, or the [unreadable]  of the New York Tammany clique, [unreadable] and cutting cartoons of the [unreadable] Nast.
     Genius will display itself in almost anything. And judging from the specimens we have seen, we should say that Moritz Retzsch was the very genius of Etching; at the same time, the Milton and the Shakespeare of the pencil and graver. He was born at Dresden in 1779. His etchings illustrating Goethe's "Faust," which were published in 1812, at once established his reputation, both in Germany and other countries. These were followed by his illustrations of Schiller, of Shakespeare, of Burger's "Lenore," and his " Ballads," and also, of other popular works. He was not only highly esteemed as a portrait painter, but was preeminent among the artists of his time as an original designer in outline. His illustrations of " Faust," in particular, have rarely, if ever, been surpassed by any works of the kind; while his "Hope Deceived," 'The Scourging of Genius," "The Repose of Love," and " The Soul of Man, or the Sphinx," all evince original, inventive, and powerful talent. He died at Dresden, in 1857.
     But of all the etchings of Retzsch, perhaps the most striking and effective is the one, the title of which is (in part) at the head of this article. It is called "The Chess Players," or " The Game of Life." In this, with a power and felicity that belong only to genius, Retzsch has pictured to us a scene and forms, that fill ??, as we gaze, with terror and thoughtfulness and grief. We are amazed and delighted with his " fancies " of such wondrous power. We fear and tremble as we think of their reference to ourselves. He has given us a design, of which it is hardly too much to say. that it should be hung up in the study of every artist, in the chamber of every young man, "in the closet of every father's meditations, and in the oratory or every mother's prayers." It is the devil, playing with a young man, the game for his soul We take the description of it, mainly from the letterpress, which was issued with the engraving.
     The scenery, as might be expected, is chosen with reference to the fearful thought to be expressed. The place where the game is played, is in keeping with the presence of that dark and terrible being, whom we associate with all that is alarming and horrible. It is a wide vault, its arch formed by two lizard-shaped monsters, whose misshapen heads rest on the claws with which they adhere closely to two pillars, down which they seem to be creeping. The upper surface of a tomb within this vault is chiselled into a chess-board; and on this is played, by the two antagonists, the game of life—the game of Satan for the young man's soul!
    On one side sits Man, as a fair and noble looking youth, his head, with its curling locks, resting on his hand, and his countenance, as well it might be, full of serious and anxious thought. Opposite, sits Satan, the prince of darkness, seated in a chair, one of the arms of which is a lion, open-mouthed, as if "seeking whom he may devour ;" while, lower down, is seen one of the claws resting on the skull of some previous antagonist, who has been beaten in the game, and then destroyed by the evil one. About his shoulders is a broad cloak, from which his bony hand and claw-like fingers are put forth for the game. In his cap is the long and crooked feather from the cock's tail, which, with the ancients, was the emblem of cunning and malice. The features of his countenance are noble, for he is still an angel, though fallen; but their expression, as is fitting to his fallen state, is devilish and hateful, full of coldness, and falsehood, and cruelty. His brow is knit, and his eye fixed, with malicious eagerness, on the game, while the hand covering the chin may either conceal an expectant and exulting smile that the prize will soon be won, or hide the lip compressed, and the teeth set with vexatious fear that his antagonist may possibly win.
     Between the two players, and a little in the back ground, stands an angel, gentle and lovely, with outspread wings, the guardian spirit of the young man. To drive him away, is beyond the power of Satan. Only the young man himself can renounce, and thus banish him. But, on the other hand, the angel, like conscience can only warn and counsel, not absolutely control his conduct. This guardian spirit is looking down in sorrow on the game, and in view of its critical state, seems almost ready to despair and depart, and yet is still waiting in hope for the best.
     And now for the game itself. On Satan's side, the King is his own image, muffled, indeed, in a cloak, but still known at once. His Queen, a voluptuous female, with uncovered bosom, is Pleasure; her left hand pointing to her own seductive charms, while her right holds out the intoxicating cup. The six officers of Satan are six vices. The first is Indolence; with heavy form, and hanging arms, and stupid look, sitting idly on an unhewn block of wood. The second is Anger; rash and headlong, like the turkey-cock, that flies into a rage with every object, and having the head of that easily excited bird. The third is Pride, moving stiffly forward, with a feather crown, and bead tossed backward, a» if in scorn; with spurs on the heels, and an order on the breast; a full purse in one hand, and the other stretched haughtily forth, as if giving a command. He seems looking back at his splendid peacock's tail, which, as it is spread for display, hides from his own eyes the uncomely parts which it exposes to the view of others. The fourth is Falsehood; spotted like a tiger, and with a head like a cat; one hand on the breast, as if to assure good faith, while the other conceals a dagger behind her back. The fifth is Avarice, with Envy, as one person, bent and lean, gnawing its own hand, and pressing a casket, under its arras. The sixth and last, is Unbelief, a bold and impudent figure, horned, and with hands to its sides, as if in token of self-sufficiency, and overthrowing a cross with its foot. The eight pawns are Doubts; small, harpy shaped creatures, with wings like bats, emblematic of darkness, and sharp teeth, ready to bite and devour.
     On the side of the young man, his own soul is the King, with a broad robe firmly drawn about him, and the wings of the butterfly on his shoulders, in token of his immortality. His Queen is Religion, the most powerful of all defenders ; a noble, majestic female, with angel wings; one hand outstretched, as though giving protection, and the other holding the cross, the emblem of the faith. The first, of his officers is Hope, resting on her anchor, and looking forward as though in expectation. The second is Truth, with a lighted torch and a reflecting shield, standing with Hope, as a castle, on her side. The third is Peace, with the palm branch in her hand The fourth is Humility, with her head bent in prayer, and her person plainly clad. The fifth is Innocence, as a naked child, unsuspecting and guileless, and stretching forth its arms confidingly to all. And sixth, and last, is Love—two children affectionately embracing each other, with cheek pressed to cheek, while above them is a bright single star. The pawns are Angel Heads, winged and worshipping, signifying prayers; for, as in the game of chess, an officer lost may be recovered by a pawn, so a spiritual loss may often he recovered by prayer.
     Such are the pieces on either side. As to the game, it stands ill for the young man. His adversary has already weakened the power of prayer, by taking from him several angel heads. Love is lost; Innocence is lost; Humility is gone; and Peace, just seized, is still in the grasp of Satan.      Pleasure, Unbelief, and Evil Doubts, are all urgently pressing forward against Religion; while she still stands, tranquil and sublime, protecting man, who though attacked in so many ways, is yet safe, and may hope for escape so long as she is not given up. Unhappy man has only vanquished Anger, and overcome a single Doubt. And the danger of hie position is been, also, in the figures sculptured on the sarcophagus, viz., Psyche, (the soul,) alarmed at the approach of Death ; two Death's heads, with tieshless jaws, seizing on her wings— she, horror struck, endeavoring to escape, knowing that if she can get away from her phantom tormentors, they, rooted and fixed as they are in the marble, will be unable to follow her, so that tho terrors of the grave will not overcome the soul.
     Such is the striking allegory—bold, original, in perfect keeping in all its parts, and in all full of meaning. No one could have wrought it out but an artist of wondrous and almost fearful power, and of terrible acquaintance with tho realities of life ami the dangers that beset the soul. It speaks, in every line, of all that is most serious in life, and dangerous in our earthly probation. It admonishes in solemn tones of the temptations that always beset us, and warns us that through indolence, pride, falsehood, avarice, envy, unbelief, and evil doubts, the soul is exposed to ruin,—and that it is only by struggling with and overcoming these, we are safe. On the other hand, it inculcates truth, humility, and love; peace, which flows only from a good conscience, innocence, with its child-like spirit, and hope with its cheerful courage,—the pledge of effort, and the presage of victory. It tells us that prayer is the best shield against temptation ; and above all, that while religion is preserved, we are safe,—while if she is sacrificed, all is lost.
   Deeply let these lessons be pondered. especially by the young,—and above all, by young men. Let every one remember that "The Game of Life" is in progress, and the stake, to each, is his own soul!
                                                              -Byron Edwards, D.D.


from The International cyclopedia by Selim H. Peabody and Charles F. Richardson 1898:
  FREDRICH August Moritz, an eminent German painter and engraver, was b. in Dresden, Dec. 9, 1779, studied at the academy of his native city, where he became a professor in 1834. Retzsch died July 11, 1857. He has acquired great celebrity by his illustrations in outline of the great German poets, Schiller, Goethe, etc. — those of Goethe's Faust being particularly well known, not only in his own country, but also in France and England. His illustrations of Fouques charming romances, Undine and Sintram, are singularly beautiful. Retzsch likewise executed several fine works, the subjects of which are taken from the classical mythology, as " The Child Bacchus asleep on a Panther," "Diana," "Love and Psyche embracing in the Clouds ""A Satyr and Nymph." "The Four Epochs of Human Life," etc. Among his other works of conspicuous merit are: " The Struggle of Light and Darkness," " The Chess Players." and "Fantasies." Retzsch ranks as one of the most original, thoughtful, and vigorous artists of modern Germany. His works display the presence of a strong, inventive, and cultured imagination, whose efforts at expression never degenerated into a weak scutimentalism. As a miniature oil-painter Retzsch was also very successful.




Die Schachspieler and the Morphy Anecdote, Pt.II