The Card Players by Paul Cézanne

Why the Series The Card Players by Paul Cézanne Is Remarkable

The Card Players by the renowned French post-impressionist artist of the first half of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Paul Cézanne, is a series of five oil paintings. Cézanne painted them in the early 1890s during his final period as an artist. The versions vary in size and number of card players portrayed. Relying on new research, Karen Rosenberg asserts that at first Cézanne depicted four-to-five player-groupings, but later moved on to two-figure compositions (Rosenberg, 2011).

The series of paintings The Card Players is remarkable because one of the versions in 2011 was sold for more than $250 million, making it the most expensive painting in the world that was ever sold. The tiny, oil-rich country of Qatar has purchased the painting. As Alexandra Peers notes, in a single stoke, this deal, which was set up as the highest price for a painting in history, fundamentally changed the market of contemporary art (Peers, 2012). At present time, the other four versions are in the world-known collections of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Let us consider what is depicted on the canvases. In each of the paintings from the series, we see Provençal peasants who are smoking their pipes while playing cards. The subjects are all male. Their eyes are cast downward, focusing on the cards they hold in their hands. In the two-player versions, there is an unused wine bottle on the table, but there are no glasses. And gambling? In the players’ hands we do not see any money. It is difficult for us to understand who is winning or losing.

In the painting depicting two players, the peasants sit on opposite sides of the table, and mirror gestures of each other. The spectators are eliminated as if they are the “unnecessary details”. There is a bottle of wine in the middle of the table, dividing the scene in half. Though the scene is well-balanced, it is not symmetrical: the table is a bit slanted and the peasants’ shoulders indicate that one of them is slim and the other is wide.

Cézanne borrowed and adapted this common motif from French and Dutch genre paintings of the 17th century, which depicted card games of noisy and drunken gamblers sitting in taverns. Cézanne, however, replaced them with stone-faced, sober tradesmen and portrayed them in a more simplified, but ambiguous setting. We can assume that the location may be an artist’s studio or a domestic interior. Also, Nicholas Wadley rightly observed that previous paintings of this genre were characterized by strong drama, whereas Cézanne’s works are known for their lack of drama, and peaceful mood (Wadley, 1975).

The paintings are dominated by pastel, subdued colors. Mostly, it is dark brown, brown, purple, and yellow. The men’s clothing have dark tones. Peace and serenity emanate from the pictures. The players do not move – they are too focused on the game. Instead, smoking is the main activity. Looking at the canvases, we understand that Cézanne’s task was to show a scene from daily life – a card game, and he succeeded with it.

Critics have high-esteem for the series. Richard Dorment, a contributor to The Telegraph, says that it exemplifies the cornerstone of Cézanne’s work between 1890 and 1895, as well as a prelude to the explosive artistic achievements during his final years (Dorment, 2010).

If you are interested in Paul Cézanne’s artistic heritage, but have not yet been made familiar with the series of paintings The Card Players, then you should do this as soon as possible. This work is definitely worthy to be observed and discussed. Even if you are not a fan of art, the fact that one of works from this series was the most expensive painting in the world will enhance your interest for sure.

List of References:
1. Alexandra Peers: “Qatar Purchases Cézanne’s The Card Players for More Than $250 Million, Highest Price Ever for a Work of Art”. Vanity Fair, 2 February 2012.
2. Karen Rosenberg: “Workers at Rest: Smoking and Playing Cards”. The New York Times, 10 February 2011.
3. Nicholas Wadley: “Cézanne and His Art. New York”. Galahad Books, 1975. – 128 p.
4. Richard Dorment: “Paul Cézanne: The Card Players, Courtauld Gallery, review”. The Telegraph, 25 October 2010.
5. Richard W. Murphy: “The World of Cézanne, 1839-1906”, New York, Time-Life Books, 1968. – 192 p.