The painting is part of Matisse's series on man's "Golden Age" and was part of Sergei Shchukin's collection before the October Revolution of 1917.
From the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia:
In creating this work in Paris in 1908 Matisse was probably inspired by watching the Parisians playing the traditional French game of boules, and certainly the boys are very concrete individuals, the artist's sons and nephew. The arrangement of the figures, the incline of the heads, the schematic facial features, all give us some idea of what each player is feeling: there is the total concentration of the boy about to throw his boule, the expectant interest in the result of the other boy, the calm of the seated figure. But at the same time there is something strange, sad and mysterious in the composition. Some kind of primeval silence in which the earth, water, sky and man, the central elements in the world, are all sunk. The game is to be perceived as one manifestation of man's creativity. The "game" is in the highest sense a form of cognition, an instrument to use in understanding the "codes" of life. Matisse turns to man's mythological past, to times when the mystery of being was more central to everyday life. The participants in the "action" seem to have frozen, each "held" in the surface, although the sense of volume and mass has not totally disappeared. The Game of Bowls is one of a cycle of works of 1905 to 1910, united by the theme of man's "golden age".