Cézanne’s Card Players – a monumental study


Cézanne rarely engaged with genre painting – depictions of everyday life where figures are presented as generic types, not as portraits of named individuals. But with his series of Card Players and their associated studies, he spent around six years in the 1890s studying and developing this one subject, using his own farm workers as models. An exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery examines many of these works in depth and argues for a revision of the order in which the principal works were painted, thereby shedding new light on Cézanne’s working methods and aims.

Before entering the one large room displaying the Cézanne exhibition, it is instructive to visit a nearby hanging where the gallery is displaying works which portray earlier depictions of peasants. ‘Drawing Peasants’ features primarily Dutch and French works from the 17th century which were typical of the way artists formerly portrayed the labouring classes.

Their features, with few exceptions, are shown as rough and coarse. There is little dignity here as the figures are seen in ungainly and undignified poses, such as squatting or spreading their legs wide, postures frowned upon in polite society. They are frequently drunk and lecherous. Portrayed as figures of fun, the drawings were bought by wealthy bourgeois to hang on their walls for their private amusement.

Brueghel the Elder - Kermesse at Hoboken 1559 - The Courtauld Gallery London

One early work typifies this theme. Brueghel the Elder’s Kermesse at Hoboken of 1559 depicts what at first seems a charming rural scene as villages gather at a village fair, enjoying themselves in harmless activities. A saint’s effigy is paraded through the town behind a church procession in the background while an archery tournament takes place to the left. However, on closer inspection a drunk is urinating against the tavern wall while another defecates in full view. The most prominent image in the centre ground, however, is that of a covered wagon which is actually a mobile brothel, hauled from one village festival to the next.

The contrast with Cézanne’s peasants could not be more stark. Here the artist was re-inventing the genre and experimenting with form, composition and palette at the same time. The Courtauld has worked closely with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to bring together three of the five Card Player canvases and numerous associated studies and related paintings. The two institutions have also used technical analysis to challenge the current consensus around the order of production of the principal works.

Co-curator Dr. Nancy Ireson explains: “The paintings have never been studied technically like this before. We started a dialogue with the Met and have been working closely with them for the past two years on this.

Dr Nancy Ireson at the Courtauld Gallery exhibition

“It was very exciting seeing the pictures out of their frames and being analysed with the latest scientific equipment and it set different ideas in motion. Why did Cézanne’s palette change from the multi-figure Card Player canvases to the two-figure works? What order did he paint them in? Fundamentally, what do the pictures actually mean?”

Traditionally, art historians have surmised that Cézanne worked from the larger canvases down to the smaller, defining his technique and approach, although this would have been contrary to the artistic practice of the time. However, the technical analysis has shown large areas of under-drawing and alterations on the smaller works such as the Metropolitan’s multi-portrait canvas, which the artist most likely refined in the larger Barnes painting.

Of Cézanne’s Card Player series, two are multi-figure compositions and three two-figure works and the Courtauld is displaying three of these, including the Met’s multi-figure canvas. Although there is general agreement that the multi-portrait works preceded the two-figure canvases, the scientific analysis indicates that this latter series began with the Musée d’Orsay work, followed by the canvas from a private collection. This last work has not been seen for more than fifty years and was unavailable for technical study. Finally, perhaps, came the Courtauld’s own painting of the scene.

Nevertheless, as the catalogue states, “the relationship between the last two remains speculative and it is also possible to argue that the largest of the three (i.e. that from the private collection), was in fact the final work of the group.”

The Card Players c. 1890-92 - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The first mention of the peasant paintings is made by the write Paul Alexis to the author Emile Zola in 1891. Zola and Cézanne had been friends from their schooldays but had fallen out and Zola now wanted news of him. Alexis wrote: “During the day, he paints at the Jas de Bouffan where a worker serves as his model and where one of these days I’ll see what he’s doing.”

The Jas was Cézanne’s family estate in Provence which he had inherited upon the death of his father, a wealthy banker, when he was in his forties along with a fortune of 400,000 francs. Cézanne père had wanted his son to become a lawyer and he did attend law school in Aix for two years, but he was also taking drawing lessons and left for Paris in 1861 to concentrate on his art.

By the time he came to work on the Card Player series, he had been influenced by the first wave of Impressionism, fell under the influence of Pissarro, worked with Renoir and Monet and finally settled in Aix, Cézanne’s place of birth.

The Card Players c. 1892-96 - Musée d'Orsay Paris

Work on the Card Players began soon after Cézanne was diagnosed with diabetes and following increasing marital problems. He, his wife and child, Paul junior, had been to Switzerland, perhaps in an attempt to repair the marriage, but while he returned to the farm in Provence, she and their son settled in Paris. It was also at this time that the artist began to turn increasingly to Catholicism.

The Card Players and associated works seem to provide a region of calm which was lacking in Cézanne’s own life at the time. He used his gardener and workers from his estate as models, sketching and painting them each individually before inserting their figures into the final work. They were paid five francs a sitting for their pains and the same faces feature repeatedly across the series.

The repeated attempts in drawings and oils to capture exactly what he was striving for were unusual for Cézanne and indicate a continual search to find the essence of this artistic endeavour. He told a visitor to his studio that he wanted to produce “something solid and durable, like the art of the museums” and there is no doubt that, in the monumental forms of these working men, he achieved his aim.

Study for the Card Players c. 1890-92 - Worcester Art Museum, Mass.

As Dr Ireson points out “the peasants are portrayed with dignity, there are no moralistic tones employed here. They are all honest works whereas before peasant paintings could be, and frequently were, condescending.”

Cézanne’s contemporaries tended to read the works in one of two ways: that they represented the true Provencal type which chimed with a move to reinforce local identity as workers drifted from countryside to town in search of labour, or that Cézanne himself closely identified with his workers as an enlightened patron. In fact, neither was correct.

Cézanne had begun to dislike modern life and the rate of change he saw around him. He was never entirely happy in Paris or any big city and his philosophy in later life was summed up in one famous statement: “Today everything changes in reality, but not for me. I live in the town of my childhood and it is with the eyes of the people of my own age that I see the past again. I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with the old customs.”

It is undoubtedly this sentiment which informs his Card Player series. Apart from the obvious fact of a card game taking place, there is no narrative here; the players do not look at each other nor do they communicate in any way. The settings are not actual locations and the background space in the two-figure paintings is not clearly delineated. Some contemporary critics felt that this lack of application demonstrated a lack of talent in the artist and Cézanne himself admitted that he often had problems with getting his subjects in proportion – “I am a primitive, I have a lazy eye”. But it could also be argued that each successive work in the series represented a continuing effort to achieve the perfect distillation of form and character for Cézanne.

The Card Players c. 1892-96 - The Courtauld Gallery London

The sense of studious concentration shown on the subjects’ faces and their fixed demeanour may also relate to the fact that these men were spending long periods of time in a location – either Cézanne’s studio or a room in his own home – where they would rarely, if ever, set foot. They must have felt awkward having to sit for hours under the gaze of the boss as he painted away. Critics have also remarked that the fact that the models have cards in their hands in this context is not significant as they merely serve as props for the artist to study line, form, characterisation and composition.

Albert Barnes was a wealthy American who bought the larger multi-figure Card Player painting for an astonishing one million francs in 1925. Under the terms of his legacy, the painting may not be loaned so is not exhibited at the Courtauld. However, he collaborated on a book in 1939 having studied the work intensely, saying: “His figures are human beings only in the broadest essentials; psychological characterization…is absent, and little or no emphasis is put on the particular thing the subjects happen to be doing.” The figures serve ultimately to structure the composition. As co-curator Barnaby Wright states in the catalogue when referring to the Courtauld’s two-figure painting: “In striving to achieve his desired arrangement of figures and objects, Cézanne sacrificed anatomical and perspectival accuracy in favour of harmonies of form and tone.”

'A thing of solemn beauty' - Man with a Pipe c. 1892-96 - The Courtauld Gallery London

Brian Sewell, no fan of the Card Player series itself, nevertheless believes that Man with a Pipe (c. 1892-96) “is a thing of solemn beauty anticipating Modigliani” and that two other works in the exhibition – Peasant (c. 1890-92) and Man Smoking a Pipe (c. 1893-96) – pre-figure Cubism, the first major art movement of the 20th century, “more than a decade before its time.”

Indeed, Cézanne’s reductive approach and his eye for geometric invention inspired such artists as Picasso, Braque, Gris and others to experiment for themselves and to deconstruct form. Another famous quote, attributed to either Picasso or Matisse, has it that Cézanne “is the father of us all”.

One quote that is definitely attributable was that of the writer Gustave Coquiot who said in 1919: “This is life itself, without exaggeration or theatrical embellishment. And it isn’t realistic because everything is enhanced by the colour and design…These Card Players are the equal of the most beautiful works of art in the world.”

Until January 16 2011 at the Courtauld Gallery London then from February 9 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



Posted in Museums and Galleries.

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