Study for The Card Players by Paul CezanneYou'll often find them in a provençal bar: players engrossed in a game of cards. And, as with his celebrated cycle on the Mont Sainte Victoire, Cézanne was fascinated by these peasants and returned to them again and again.

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The subject of the card-players was first mentioned in 1891, when the writer Paul Alexis visited Cézanne's studios in Aix en Provence and found him painting one of the men from the farm on his estate, the Jas de Bouffan.

A number of workers came to pose over the years. Among them were a man known as le père Alexandre, who appears in several of the pieces smoking a pipe, and Cézanne's gardener, Paulin Paulet: both men appear in the Musée d'Orsay study (c. 1892-1896), pictured below.

Cézanne executed five paintings of different sizes in the 1890s, all exploring this theme of men playing cards at a table, as well as numerous studies and sketches. As the series progressed, the number of figures and incidental details were progressively pared down in order to focus on the essentials.

The transformations could be clearly seen in a show which gathered together a number of different versions of The Card Players at the Courtauld Gallery, London, in 2010 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the following year.

The Card Players by Paul Cezanne Musee d'OrsayThe exhibition also included five related portraits of individual peasants and a collection of watercolours, oil studies and preparatory drawings loaned from museums around the world.

Alas, the one place you won't see any of Cézanne's major pieces is the Musée Granet in his hometown of Aix en Provence. During his lifetime, the artist offered it dozens, but the then-curator, Auguste-Henri Pontier, hated his work and categorically refused to display it.

The show at the Courtauld and the Met offered illuminating revelations about Cézanne's way of working. Rather than bringing his models together and painting them in action during a game of cards, he would make studies of the men separately and only assemble them on canvas. And it shows.

The Card Game from Marcel Pagnol's MariusIn sharp contrast to, say, Marcel Pagnol's rackety, exuberant, argumentative players in the famous card game from his 1931 film Marius (pictured; click here to watch the entire scene), Cézanne's men are stoical, still, silent.

They don't make eye contact but stare intently at their hands. They certainly don't speak much, if at all. They're probably playing a local game such as belote, contré or manille. But you might say that they have perfect poker faces.

Cézanne's treatment of the men's clothing is typical too: the great swathes of fabric in the portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (The Card Players, c. 1890-1892, pictured) have an almost sculptural quality.

The Card Players by Paul CezanneIn the slightly later Musée d'Orsay study and the very similar one owned by the Courtauld, a bottle of wine on the table bisects the composition, further dividing the men in their separate solitudes. These games are not light-hearted social diversions, but almost sacred rites.

Roger Fry wrote of these studies, in 1927: "It is hard to think of any design since those of the great Italian Primitives... which gives us so extraordinary a sense of monumental gravity and resistance - of something that has found its centre and can never be moved."

Yet it's the great paradox of Cézanne's work that, while he was drawn to timeless, traditional subjects, his treatment of them was utterly revolutionary. At the time, his brushwork would have seemed to some coarse, even primitive. But it was to become the acknowledged inspiration for Picasso and the Cubist school. 20th century art began here.

In 2011 the last of Cézanne's five full paintings in the card-players series - which was formerly owned by the private Greek collector George Embiricos - was sold to the royal family of Qatar for over 191 million €uros, making it the most expensive painting in the world at the time.

In 2012 an early watercolour study for these paintings, previously thought to be lost, was rediscovered in Texas and sold at Christie's for over 14 million €uros, including commission.

The sketch, pictured, had belonged to a prominent collector, Dr Heinz F Eichenwald. The new owner wished to remain anonymous.

Paul Cezanne, A Card PlayerClick here to read more articles about Paul Cezanne in Aix en Provence.

Find further reading on Amazon:

On Site with P. Cézanne in Provence Published by the Paul Cézanne society, this superbly illustrated book is essential for anyone seriously following the master's trail, and a beautiful souvenir if you're visiting the sites. Art experts discuss Cézanne's work in L'Estaque, Bibémus, the Jas de Bouffon and the Lauves studio, analysing the paintings and comparing them with photographs of the locations.

Cézanne: A Biography The German-American art historian John Rewald is regarded as a leading expert on Cézanne - he is even buried next to his mentor in Aix en Provence. His authoritative biography includes letters, photographs and a catalogue raisonné.

Cézanne: A Life is the first major new biography of the artist for many decades. The author, Alex Danchev, is not a traditional art historian and comes at his subject from an unusual angle. His biography has received rave reviews in The Sunday Times, The Spectator and elsewhere as a revealing and sympathetic portrait of a man always previously been regarded as prickly, physically awkward and aloof.

 

 

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