The Card Players

Paul Cezanne
Keywords: CardPlayers

Work Overview

The Card Players
Paul Cézanne
Oil on canvas
47.5 × 57 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

The abstract side of Cézanne's art has always been given due weight. It was amusingly emphasized by Ambroise Vollard who, after sitting many times for his portrait, asked how it was getting on. Cézanne's reply: `I am not displeased with the shirt-front' seemed to suggest that the human element did not enter into his calculations, that he was simply concerned with planes and gradations of color. On the other hand, his several self-portraits give a remarkable sense of character and towards 1890 there are other signs of his interest in the aspect of human beings, as for example the five versions of The Card Players produced during this period at Aix. The Louvre version, reproduced here, with two players (and a bottle between them to mark the center of the symmetrically balanced composition) could be looked on in the abstract as a magnificent rendering of solid forms, given their appearance of structure by the gradated areas of the thinly applied color. But the fact remains that these are not abstractions but peasant card players in his native Provence. Whether by the sheer veracity of his study of facial planes or through some feeling of kinship with the solid countrymen he was portraying, Cézanne has made them live.

A picture of seventeenth-century card players from the studio of the brothers Le Nain in the museum at Aix and its peasant character first suggested the series to Cézanne though single peasant studies also show his interest in the essentially French type and his capacity to convey its essence. These pictures and the strange Mardi Gras of the same period (the clown and harlequin like two Romantic ghosts taking on substance and swaggering into a new era, perhaps by their strangeness leaving a deeper impression on French artists afterwards than by technique alone) realize the equation of form and content which Cézanne so often lamented he has not attained.

Of the three versions, the little painting in the Louvre is the last and undoubtedly the best; it is the most monumental and also the most refined. The single shapes are simpler, but the relationships are more varied. The extraordinary conception of the left player is the result of a progressive stabilizing and detachment of this meditating figure.

It is the image of a pure contemplativeness without pathos. Given the symmetry of the two card players looking fixedly at their cards, Cézanne had to surmount the rigidity and obviousness of the pair and yet preserve the gravity of their absorbed attitudes. It is remarkable how thoroughly interesting is this perfectly legible picture, how rich in effective inventions of color and form.

The problem: how to image the figures as naturally symmetrical, with identical roles--each is the other's partner in an agreed opposition--but to express also the life of their separateness, without descending to episode and weakening the pure contemplative quality, so rare in older paintings of the game.

It is accomplished in part by a shift of axis: the left figure is more completely in the picture; his partner, bulkier, more muscular, is marginal--but oddly also nearer to us--and takes up more of the table. His head is bent forward; he is more intensely concerned. The first man is the more habitual player, relaxed and cool, and his long columnar form is contrasted with the horizontal line behind him. The two hats, one with arched brim, firm and poised, the other with turned-up, irregular brim, soft and battered, convey this difference of feeling--two tonalities of meditation. The left player has a bright mind and a sluggish body, the right has a slower mind and a livelier body or temper. The former's arm begins very low, his limbs are detached from the tiny head which is intent but not anxious (it is remote from the body and is like the hat on the head) The other has a hunched effect; if he is ready to play, he is more strained in deciding. The arms of the first are parallel, the other's arms converge. The first head is set against a vague landscape, the second against an architecture of verticals, a more rigid, pressing form which measures the inclination of his body. The long man's face is shaded and lit with inner contrasts that subdue the silhouette; the other's is more open, more fully given. The first has light cards, the second, dark, and his hands are nearer to us. The tablecloth ends in a stable right angle at the left, in a sharply pointed form at the right. The color too is a subtly contrasted expression: violet against yellow, but both neutralized; in the left figure, violet jacket, yellow pants; the converse in the right. The latter is therefore more strongly contrasted with his surroundings in color as well as form. But this contrast is crossed: the straight figure against a sloping chair, the inclined figure against a vertical edge.

The inherent rigidity of the theme is overcome also by the remarkable life of the surface. There is a beautiful flicker and play of small contrasts, an ever-responding sensibility on every inch of canvas. 
-- Meyer Schapiro

A more condensed version of this painting with four figures, long thought to be the second version of The Card Players, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At 65.4 x 81.9 cm (25 3/4 x 32 1/4 in), it is less than half the size of the Barnes painting. Here the composition remains virtually the same, minus the boy, with viewers' perspective slightly closer to the game, but with less space between the figures. In the previous painting, the center player as well as the boy were hatless, whereas this version has all the men hatted. Also gone are the shelf to the left with vase and lower half of a picture frame in the center of the wall, leaving only the four pipes and hanging cloth to join the smoking man behind the card players. The painting is brighter, with less focus on blue tones, than the larger version. X-ray and infrared studies of this version of The Card Players have shown layers of "speculative" graphite underdrawing, as well as heavy layers of worked oil paint, possibly suggesting it was the preliminary of Cézanne's two largest versions of the series, rather than the second version as historically believed.[12] The underdrawing has also led analysts to believe Cézanne had difficulty transferring the men, previously painted individually in studies, onto one canvas.
In focusing on a short series, the Courtauld Institute provides more insight into the way he worked than even a huge exhibition might have, says Richard Dorment .

Cézanne’s series of paintings The Card Players is the cornerstone of his work between 1890 and 1895, and the prelude to the explosive creative achievement of his last years. It was a simple but inspired idea for the Courtauld Gallery to bring together three of the five versions of the picture and to display them alongside the preparatory studies in pencil, watercolour and oil. In addition, three of Cézanne’s most powerful portraits, all showing one of the models Cézanne used for The Card Players, complete our understanding of how he worked during this crucial period.
Although it isn’t a big show, we emerge more aware than ever of the complexity of Cézanne’s art, but no nearer to penetrating the enigma of Cézanne himself. All we can do is to stand back and watch the artist’s thought processes over a span of five years, as he casts a critical eye over a finished canvas, decides that he can do something to improve it, starts another canvas, fails again, but fails better. Moving from picture to picture, we can see how he corrects and strengthens perceived weaknesses, as in each attempt he tries to find monumentality, simplicity and pictorial unity.
The 1880s was a period of synthesis and consolidation in his art, when he moved decisively away from Impressionism to paint compositions in which he used verticals, horizontals and diagonals both to build up mass and to establish structure. In the views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, form and volume emerge out of faceted planes of colour applied with short strokes of a loaded brush.
The first question to ask ourselves is what interested Cézanne about the subject of men sitting around a table playing cards? Of all of the categories into which academic theory divided painting, genre subjects were among the least prestigious. The theme of the card players was not particularly common in art at this date, and Cézanne’s treatment of it has nothing to do with the rowdy tavern scenes popular in 17th-century Dutch and French art.
Here is what I think happened. As he considered tackling a genre subject, he must have asked himself how he could show several figures interacting naturally with one another and yet retain the architectonic structure that permeates his paintings of static landscapes and inert still lifes. The answer was to show a scene from everyday life in which nobody moves – a card game. In what other subject could several men be shown sitting around a table facing each other without talking, gesturing, or even looking up? In a card game, each player studies the hand he has been dealt so intently that his lack of movement and the absence of even the slightest expressive reaction to his opponents, looks quite natural. The subject of a card game was as close as Cézanne could find to a human still life.

The Card Players is a famous oil painting by Paul Cezanne, who was a renowned post-impressionist French artist. He painted this remarkable artwork during his final period, which was in the early 1890s. Cezanne created a variety of sizes and versions of the painting, as presented in the number of players present in the artwork. Furthermore, he completed several sketches and analysis as he prepared for the different series of The Card Players. One of the versions of The Card Players was priced at around $250 million to $300 million, and it was sold in 2011. Hence, it was considered as the most expensive artwork that was ever sold.

Artwork Analysis
The series of this impressive artwork was said to be the finest among Cezanne’s works during the 1890s, and it also served as the highlight to the artist’s final years. Each painting by Cezanne depicts typical Provencal peasants that were immersed in their mundane activities as they smoked their pipes and played cards. The subjects of the painting are all male, and they appear to be intently focused on their game at hand.

The artist adapted a theme from the Dutch and French genres of painting of the 17th century, which presented card games played by drunken and rowdy gamblers in taverns. However, Cezanne replaced these figures with stone-faced and serious tradesmen in a rather simplified setting. While most paintings during that era were quite emotional, Cezanne’s artworks were known for their lack of emotions, conventional characterization and narration. Moreover, there are no signs of drama or sentiments, which were prominent images of 17th century paintings.

About Cezanne and His Artworks
Most of the models for Cezanne’s paintings were farm hands, and several of them worked on the artist’s family estate. Each of the scenes in his paintings is presented as still and quiet, and the card players appeared to be focused on their game. This image seemed to present how the cards serve as the men’s sole means of communication after their work. In fact, most critics describe the scenes as the representation of the human still life, while others believe that the men’s focus on the game depicted the artist’s absorption in his artworks.

Cezanne created quite a number of sketches and studies as he prepared for The Card Players series. He made more than a dozen preparatory drawings, and he painted several local farm workers to discover the best image that will suit his final paintings. Some critics also believed that most of Cezanne’s models sat for studies instead of the actual works, and that the artist completed his preliminary work in the Aix Cafe.

The Card Players by Paul Cezanne was not entirely a portrait of two men intently focused on their game. In fact, this magnificent artwork was more of an exploration and discovery of the possible nuance of color and volume. The radiant white highlight in the painting seems to divide the composition into two sections, and this calls attention to the dark and light tonalities of the men’s dresses. With these impressive details and features, The Card Players was known as one of the most brilliant artworks of all time.

“Cézanne’s Card Players,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sounds like a show for our high-stakes moment. But the real appeal of this mini-blockbuster is its modest vision of a rural pastime, rendered with infinite patience. The big players who dominate the art world today would have a hard time identifying with Cézanne’s peasants and laborers: men quietly passing the time, happy enough with the hand that life has dealt them.

With his series of “Card Players,” Cézanne reclaimed — and transformed — an activity from 17th-century genre painting. He dispensed with the sermonizing implicit in most earlier images of card playing, replacing sloppy-drunk gamblers with sober, stone-faced tradesmen. Yet he stopped short of portraiture, keeping his subjects — who were also his employees — at a socially appropriate distance.

“Today everything is changing, but not for me,” Cézanne said. “I live in my hometown, and I rediscover the past in the faces of people my age.” He found at least two such faces close at hand, on his family’s estate outside Aix-en-Provence: those of the gardener Paulin Paulet and the farm worker Père Alexandre.

At the Met these rugged characters appear again and again in the paintings and in numerous individual figure studies. Yet we never really get to know them; they remain “types,” as defined by their leisure activities —card playing, smoking — as they are by their métiers, their work.

In that sense the “Card Players,” which all date from the 1890s, romanticize agrarian Provençal culture and reaffirm centuries-old French social hierarchies. They’re the product of an isolated man in his 50s, living and working on his family estate hundreds of miles away from an uproarious Paris. But it’s impossible to ignore the paintings’ overtures to Modernism: their patchy surfaces, compressed spaces and figurative liberties, which have moved Léger and Jeff Wall, among others, to pay tribute.

“Cézanne’s Card Players” was organized by the Met in conjunction with the Courtauld Gallery in London, where it appeared last fall. The Met’s version of the show has fewer major works, even without accounting for the absence of “The Smoker,” from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg; a recent legal dispute has prevented that painting from traveling to the United States. Two important versions of the “Card Players”— the Barnes Foundation’s large one, which never travels, and a smaller canvas from a private collection — are here only in reproduction. But the Met’s incomplete deck is still deeply engrossing.

The Met curator Gary Tinterow has fleshed out the show with a small gallery of works from the museum’s collection that typify the card-playing and smoking genres. These include 17th-century Dutch and Flemish etchings of jolly taverngoers, politically incisive 19th-century cartoons by Daumier, and Manet’s print of a philosophical-looking smoker.

The players in most of these works are prone to greed, lust or acts of violence — sometimes all three. An etching after Caravaggio’s “Cardsharps” carries an inscription from Horace: “That game indeed gives rise to restless strife and anger.”

Metropolitan Museum of Art “Cézanne’s Card Players” features the artist’s family gardener and a farm worker. Credit Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Cézanne had clearly studied images like this one; he called his “Card Players” “souvenirs of the museums.” But he managed to separate the motif from its attendant morality.

Wine? In Cézanne’s paintings there’s sometimes a bottle on the table, but no glasses. Women? Not a one. And gambling? We don’t see any money changing hands. Nor do we have any sense of who’s winning or losing.

Much wall text is devoted to the curatorial parlor game of sequencing the paintings in the series; new research indicates that Cézanne worked on the four- and five-figure groupings first, then moved on to the two-player compositions.

More intriguing, to the nonexpert, is Cézanne’s way of shuffling the cards: making individual studies and then assembling them on canvas, in various permutations. This explains the curious lack of interaction between the players — “a kind of collective solitaire,” in the words of the critic Meyer Schapiro.

The alienation is most pronounced in the Barnes painting, but it’s apparent enough in the Met’s version. The table seems hardly big enough to accommodate the three broad-shouldered men, yet each is absorbed in his hand. A fourth, standing, waits his turn.

The mood is more intense, and the dynamic a bit less stable, in the two-player groupings on the opposite wall. (One hails from the Musée d’Orsay, the other from the Courtauld.) The peasants, seated on opposite sides of a table, mirror each other’s gestures; a wine bottle divides the scene neatly in half. But the scene, though exquisitely balanced, isn’t symmetrical; the table is slightly askew, and you can tell from the men’s shoulders — one pair thin and rounded, the other broad and square — that they would not be well matched in a fight.

The angular physique belongs to the gardener, Paulet, recognizable from several studies. The other man, with the pipe and the more Gallic profile, also appears on paper but hasn’t been conclusively identified. Both, along with Père Alexandre, return in a final and phenomenal gallery of single-figure paintings.

Here smoking, not card playing, is the main activity. You can almost smell the tobacco in “Man With a Pipe,” with its proto-Giacometti, nicotine-stained palette, and “The Smoker” (from the Kunsthalle Mannheim, the only one of three “Smokers” to have made the trip). Looking at the able-bodied yet vacant-eyed figure of Paulet, in the riveting “Smoker,” you sense that Cézanne needed his subjects to be as absorbed in their leisure as he was in his work.

It’s strange, then, that the young peasant in another standout painting — from a private collection — isn’t smoking or playing cards or doing anything at all. His eyes are downcast but expressive, shaded with anxiety or exhaustion. Here Cézanne comes close to portraiture. Otherwise, he is a master of the poker face.