Object of the Month: The Game of Knucklebones



A few years ago, my fifth grade gifted and talented students completed a unique research project.  Specifically, we sent letters to museum directors asking for input about one object, artifact, work of art, or a creative selection from their museum's collections.  The selection could be a personal favorite, possess significant cultural relevance, be a "best" example of its kind, tell a story, promote a new idea, or expose students to a new experience.

The purpose of the project was to provide resources for interdisciplinary learning, to present opportunities to think in new ways, and to enhance subject matter with activities that promote creativity and provide cultural relevance.  Most directors were eager to participate, and many provided supplemental information and resources.  Their thorough responses are best characterized by the words of one director, "Thank you for reaching out."

Below are the four questions we asked.  (Since some respondents have moved on to different institutions, I share only the museum position, instead of the person's name.)

May's object of the month is from The Baltimore Museum of Art.  The Interpretation Manager answered our questions as follows:  (Excerpt)

Selected object: The Game of Knucklebones (Les Osselets)  c. 1734

by Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin (French 1699-1779)
Oil on canvas

The Mary Frick Jacobs collection. BMA 1938.193

1.  What information and essential understanding should students know about your selection?

A young girl wearing an apron plays "knucklebones," a game that looks very much like "jacks."  She has just tossed the ball into the air and will use her left hand to pick up the four knucklebones lying on the tabletop.  The irregularly shaped knucklebones are actually small bones from the heel of a sheep.

Chardin enjoyed painting realistic scenes of kitchen maids and crockery.  Nonetheless, his paintings have a message to convey.  Eighteenth-century viewers looking at The Game of Knucklebones would notice the pair of scissors propped conspicuously at the edge of the table and they would recognize them as a thinly veiled sign of disapproval; this girl should be attending to her sewing rather than wasting her time playing "knucklebones."  Perhaps Chardin agreed with English philosopher John Locke who wrote that it was useless for girls to spend hours perfecting their skills at a game when they should "employ all the industry about something that might be more useful to them."

2.  What questions would you ask to stimulate curiosity and/or creative thinking about your selection?

An artist can use color to create the illusion of real light and shadow on the canvas: 

  • How does Chardin suggest that light is coming from a certain direction?
  • Which parts of the girl's dress are well lit?  Which parts are in shadow?
  • How does the artist create a shadow?
  • What color are the shadows on the girl's arms and hands?

3.  Do you have any suggestions for incorporating your selection into a specific subject?

 Students will enjoy knowing that the game of Knucklebones is a not-so-distant relative of the game "Crazy Bones" that children play today with plastic bone-shaped pieces.  Three hundred years ago, a player tossed four knucklebones onto a table and calculated a score determined by which side landed "up."  The best possible throw was called "venus."  That meant that each of the four bones showed a different side "up."  The worst possible throw was called "the dog."

Students might make a study of probability as they try a similar game and keep track of how the pieces land. 

4.  Are there other resources to help us learn more about your selection?

You'll find many images of other paintings by Chardin on the internet. 


Other Objects of the Month:


Nickel the Sea Turtle

Woolworth's Lunch Counter
A. C. Gilbert Erector Set, Ferris Wheel

Chabo-hiba #877-37
The Caldonian Boar Hunt


Contact Information

Debra Lemieux

If Then Creativity



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