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On Chess: Chess And The Arts

A chess set created by Sophie Matisse in 2016. It was commissioned by the game maker Purling London and is called "Alice in Wonderland."
Purling London
A chess set created by Sophie Matisse in 2016. It was commissioned by the game maker Purling London and is called "Alice in Wonderland."

Chess became a source of inspiration in the arts in literature soon after the spread of the game to the Middle East and Europe in the Middle Ages. And it continues to command a formative impact on the arts today.

Chess creates a magical, imaginative narrative with powerful characters and drama, filled with great loss but also great triumphs. For centuries, artists have used chess as their muse to create paintings, sculptures and literature. Some have even created elaborate physical chess sets. Let’s examine some of the most famous artists, pieces and chess integrations across genres:

  • In the Palatine Chapel in the Norman Palace in Palermo, the first known painting of a chess game is displayed. The piece is estimated to be from 1143.
  • Largely regarded as one of the most influential works of chess-related arts is “Scacchia ludus” by artist Marco Girolamo. It centers on a match between Apollo and Mercury on Mount Olympus.
  • Marcel Duchamp, a French-America sculptor and painter became so enthralled with chess that in 1923 he largely walked away from art to focus on his chess career.
  • Yoko Ono famously created “White Chess Set'' in 1966. The entirely white chess set, complete with white table, white chairs, white board and white pieces, challenges the concept of opposition and of fighting an adversary.
  • Chess hit the silver screen in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” which featured wizard's chess, a chess variant where the pieces are similar to living beings, to which the players give orders by voice.

But the influence chess has on art isn’t a one-way street. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Purling London, a British luxury game company critically acclaimed for its unique boards and artistic renderings, regularly collaborates with well-known artists including Sophie Matisse, Mr. Doodle, Inkie and Thierry Noir to create contemporary chess masterpieces.

While chess-art aficionados can peruse many of the great pieces in museums and in galleries across the world, perhaps one of the best national treasures is the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis, which presents world-class exhibitions that explore the connection of chess to art, culture and history.

The World Chess Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to building awareness of the cultural and artistic significance of chess. Housed in an historic 15,900-square-foot residence-turned-business, the WCHOF features World Chess Hall of Fame inductees, United States Chess Hall of Fame inductees selected by the U.S. Chess Trust, displays of artifacts from the permanent collection and exhibitions highlighting the great players, historic games and rich cultural history of chess.