What’s going on in this painting?
(Click to enlarge)
So what’s happening?
A boy is being swindled by a group of gypsies, who were frequently stereotyped as thieves. Despite the boy’s extravagant clothing and forced posture, look at that face. He’s very young and innocent, and he’s surrounded by four women, three of them young, pretty and desirable.
This kid has barely entered puberty.
He’s trying very hard to maintain his cool
Still, he’s being deceived in three ways.
He’s paid a gypsy woman to tell his fortune by reading his palm.
The touch of a coin while reading a palm will misdirect the boy’s attention.
She’s about to "cross his palm with silver" before telling him his future. Palm readings rely on a system that assigns meanings to the creases and folds of the hand. Whether you believe in the accuracy of such a system or not, the woman has another function – she’s occupying him by touching his hand and keeping his attention on what she’s saying so he won’t pay attention to what the others are doing.
These rabbits will not last long with birds hovering nearby.
The artist makes a subtle point in the design of the old woman’s clothing – the embroidered front of her tunic has pictures of birds of prey hovering above rabbits. In the 17th century a rabbit, also called a cony, was slang for a con artist’s victim. (And the con-artist was called a cony-catcher.)
The pickpocket uses the victim’s own arm to shield her deceit.
The gypsy on the far left of the painting is stealing the boy’s purse by picking his pocket. She doesn’t even need to look at what she’s doing as she takes it. Since the boy’s hand is on his hip, his arm blocks his view of her steal.
Who is she looking at?
The pale girl with the sideways eyes… is she looking to see if the boy is looking, or is she looking at the gypsy behind the boy?
What’s the purpose of this girl behind the boy?
The girl behind the boy seems to have no purpose, unless she’s looking at the pale girl and providing encouragement as she cuts off the boy’s medallion. Maybe she was the pale girl’s teacher.
Both her hands are occupied as she cuts it loose.
Around this time, men would hold their money in a small bag or purse suspended from their belt. A thief was called a "cutpurse" because a thief would steal money by cutting the string holding the bag, just as this girl is cutting the chain. (When pockets became more common, the word "cutpurse" became pickpocket.)
Even today, almost four hundred years later, many con games are still pulled off by teams.
This poor kid never had a chance.
What great paintings say, Volume 1>>
The role of the Romanies: images and counter-images of ‘Gypsies’/Romanies>>