The Card Players (Paul Cézanne, 1890-1895)

The Card Players - Paul Cezanne - 1890 - 1892

Artwork Information

TitleThe Card Players
ArtistPaul Cezanne
Date1890 - 1892
MediumOil on Canvas
Dimensions135.3 x 181.9 cm
Art MovementPost-Impressionism
Current LocationThe Louvre, Paris
Location Created Milan, Italy

About The Card Players

Paul Cézanne worked on the series The Card Players from 1890 to 1895. Although numerous studies were created during this period, 5 paintings can be recognized as finished works. Those paintings of the same name The Card Players are kept at the Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Orsay Museum, Paris, Courtauld Institute of Art, London and the last one is part of a Private Collection. 

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1890-1892, oil on canvas, 134 x 181.5 cm, Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania

 What is depicted in The Card Players  

The Card Players painting series, which consists of 5 paintings, represents men playing cards. In the first two paintings from the series (1890-92) in addition to the three players, a man with a pipe and a small boy watching them are represented. In the final stage of work on this series in 1892-1895, Cézanne reduced the scene to two players sitting at a table facing each other.

 The Card Players – Analysis    

The term genre painting refers to paintings that depict situations and scenes from everyday life. These themes include different everyday scenes like mealtimes, various celebrations, concerts, or crowded markets and streets. In addition to the ambience characteristic of the urban environment and the experience of the bourgeoisie, the genre painting also presented rural scenes such as village festivals and scenes with animals on the farm. The genre painting was also characterized by rejecting a clear definition of the identity of portrayed figures in order to achieve the primacy of the presented theme, which, depending on the artist, was presented realistically or it was romanticized. The overall social changes caused by the schism in the Roman Catholic Church were the framework for the growing success of this art form. The first half of the 16th century was crucial for understanding two opposing visual cultures – one belonging to the newly formed Protestant Church and the other belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, known as Baroque art. In areas with a predominantly Protestant population, a wealthy class of merchants gradually gained increasing influence. Members of this class played an important role in creating new desirable themes in painting and visual culture in general. In response to the traditionalism of the Roman Catholic ideology of representativeness, Protestants, especially those in urban areas, generated a system of values ​​in which recognizable, faithfully presented scenes from their daily lives were marked as very desirable. An unpretentious approach to painting subjects, devoid of traditional sublime themes, paved the way for the development of a new civic, individualistic culture that values ​​and visually shapes aspects of its everyday life in an art form. The Dutch Golden Age, ie the period from 1588 to 1672, was crucial for the development of the art market as we know it today. A large number of increasingly influential families of merchants who were looking for works of art for their private collections influenced the creation of an environment in which numerous painting studios sprang up. Historical painting retained its highly regarded significance as did portrait painting, yet the suppression of religious themes significantly opened up a wide range of so-called lower genres that quickly became extremely popular. This painting by Lievens belongs to the group of so-called tavern scenes of soldiers. These themes are increasingly present in Dutch painting from the 1620s and are characterized by a prominent moral-didactic component. Like later Cézanne, Lievens worked with the models individually for the purposes of this painting in order to incorporate those studies into a group portrait.

Jan Lievens, Card Players, c. 1625, oil on canvas, 97.5 x 105.4 cm, The Leiden Collection, New York

In the second half of the 19th century, after the revolutionary changes, the genre painting created by painters close to Realism was characterized by strong social criticism. The painters of Realism introduced into the genre of painting the theme of endangered social groups, the poor, and wage earners who could not be seen in the sophisticated, refined Dutch genre of painting. The studiousness of the painters of Realism changed the spontaneity of the Impressionists, who approached the genre painting in a documentary way with the aim of conveying the authentic light qualities of a certain scene.

Paul Cézanne, Study for The Card Players, 1890-1892, oil on canvas, 32 x 35 cm, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts

The transformative capacity that a change in lighting opens up to objects, as well as the spectrum of themes related to the experience of modern city life, was not Cézanne’s focus. The modernity of Cézanne’s painting was reflected in his attitude towards sensations in nature, i.e. translating those sensations into elements for building an image. The structure of Cézanne’s painting is formed by complementary relationships of integrated color fields as well as on the principle of three dominant forms in nature. Cézanne believed that all scenes in nature can be represented using the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.

Paul Cézanne, Man with a Pipe (Study for The Card Players), 1890, oil on canvas, 39 x 30.2 cm, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

In a letter to Émile Bernard, dated 15 April 1904, Cézanne writes To treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, everything put in perspective, so that each side of an object, of a plane, leads to a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, be it a section of nature or, if you prefer, the spectacle that Pater Omnipotens Oeterne Deus spreads before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. Now, we men experience nature more in terms of depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient quantity of blue tones, to give a sense of atmosphere.

In the 1890s, Cézanne’s work received recognition, and the relevance of his expression became unquestionable. Cézanne’s new status was also contributed to by the laudatory tone in which Gustave Geffroy wrote about him. In the late period of his work, Cézanne withdraws into an intimate circle of people from his immediate environment, when for example, an important series of portraits of Gardener Vallier is created. Cézanne worked on The Card Players series between 1890 and 1895. Dealing with one subject during this long period is characteristic of Cézanne’s approach to work. The dedication, studiousness, and thoughtfulness of each element can be seen in this series as well. The theme of the card player itself represents Cézanne’s frequent reference to the painting of the great masters. At the beginning of his painting career, Cézanne spent a lot of time in the Louvre studying precisely these works.

In a letter to Émile Bernard dated May 12, 1904, Cézanne writes

The Louvre is a good book to consult, but it should only be a means. The real, prodigious study to undertake is the diversity of the scene offered by nature. 

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1890-1892, oil on canvas, 65.4 x 81.9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

While working on this genre scene, Cézanne incorporated numerous novelties. The development of The Card Players series can be traced through two phases. During the first phase, from 1890 to 1892, two paintings were created, characterized by a composition with several figures. The painting, which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presents a total of four figures – three card players sitting at a table and a man looking at them. Researchers of Cézanne’s work note that all those portrayed in these paintings were peasants employed on Cézanne’s estate. Cézanne worked on harmony in the domain of the structure of this composition, fitting individual portraits in new ways in different spaces. This is how Cézanne organizes this painting by placing the hands of the three players holding cards in the central plane of the painting. With this, Cézanne does not continue the tradition of drawing the viewer into the presented game by clearly presenting the symbols on the cards that the players are holding and thus leaving room for insinuating the further course of the game. Three players are represented in a silent focus on the game, while the fourth watches them from a distance. The interior is characterized by drapery in the right corner and four pipes hanging on the wall. All the elements of the interior, from the drapery to the table, as well as the human figures, were built with Cézanne’s characteristic constructive brushstrokes, which he applied in landscapes and still lifes.

The Card Players painting in the Barnes Foundation collection is the most monumental and complex of the entire series. It represents as many as five figures – in addition to the three card players represented around the table, there is also a figure of a boy peeking behind one of the players, as well as a standing figure of a man smoking a pipe and observing the scene from a corner. This picture is somewhat brighter than the previous The Card Players. The palette is based on dull and light brown, ocher, and dark yellow as well as dominant blue, white, black and red in traces as colors that symbolize the symbols on the cards. Thus, the visual code of the cards is woven throughout the overall scene indicating the experience of playing cards not as an individual impression of the player but as a total sensation in itself. This painting is not only the most complex in terms of the number of represented figures but also in terms of the organization of the interior in which the figures are placed. In his search for an authentically Provençal scene, Cézanne experimented equally with the figures and their surroundings. Thus, in this composition again, the player’s hands with cards are in the very center. This time there is a multi-colored cloth on the table, on the surface of which four cards and a pipe are clearly visible. Some researchers note that the position of these objects on the table corresponds to the position of the figures in the composition. In addition to the richly pleated drapery in the right corner as well as the four pipes hanging on the wall, there is a frame with a picture that is visible only in its lower part, forming an almost monochrome black field. Behind the standing figure of a man smoking a pipe is a wall shelf with a vase indicating a corner of the room that is just behind his right shoulder. Unlike the traditional depiction of card players in a dissolute, noisy, decadent environment characterized by a moral didactic component, Cézanne’s card players represent a different vision of the subject. Almost mystically and quietly, the players are focused on the game while intrigued spectators watch them unobtrusively.

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players 1892–93, oil on canvas, 97 × 130 cm, Private Collection
Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1892-1895, oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

 At a later stage, Cézanne opts for the more reduced scene of The Card Players. The scene, which varied in the three remaining compositions from this series, boils down to two men sitting across from each other at a table playing cards. They are the only figures presented in a significantly reduced interior compared to previous versions of this series. The center of the composition consists of a table and two players on chairs, whose backs are sometimes shown and sometimes not, while the space behind them is insufficiently defined. The table in these versions falls out of the symmetrical structure, especially in the paintings from the Orsay Museum and the Courtauld Institute of Art. These three images vary very little in the palette, which is based on brown, ochre, black, and white tones. The principle of placing the player’s hands in the central plane of the picture was repeated. The novelty of these versions is reflected in the harmonious center of gravity provided by the bottle placed between the two players.

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1894–95, oil on canvas, 47.5 × 57 cm, Orsay Museum, Paris

Related Artworks  

The Card Players series consists of five paintings. The first two (1890-1892) are in the Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The remaining three from the final phase of the series are in the Orsay Museum, Paris (1894-1895), the Courtauld Institute of Art, London (1892-1895) and the last in the series is part of a private collection (1892-1893).

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