Seventh Art Blog


by: Phil Grabsky

August 6, 2019

The Card Players, Paul Cézanne, 1894–95, Musée d’Orsay, Paris



Paul Cézanne is one of my favourite artists – and making a film about him recently only elevated him even more highly in my eyes. It made an enormous amount of difference to me to actually visit the places he lived and worked – and to thus gain insight into the location and characters of paintings such as this.

Cézanne painted card players five times – and one of the versions was sold to the Royal Family of Qatar for US$259m not so long ago. The models – the men playing cards – were employees of the Cézanne family farm which was next door to their main house (then on the outskirts of the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence). The house is now owned by a society dedicated to Cézanne and they have just bought back the farmhouse too so one can now really get a sense of the artist popping next door and asking a couple of the farm-workers to sit at a table and pretend (presumably) to play cards. Sitting for Cézanne was never easy – he was slow and often necessitated multiple sessions. But if your boss’s son asks you (and pays you presumably) to sit at a table for hours on end rather than working on the fields I guess that’s what you did.

The key – as with all Cézanne’s works – is indeed to look carefully. The technique, in my opinion, is exquisite. Look at those blocks of colour – this is his trademark, of course, but the more you look the more you admire. Look at those jackets – how many different tones he has used. It really is quite extraordinary. No wonder he struggled with deciding which tone to use where, yet it all finally works as a whole. Also look carefully at the composition – how everything draws you into a circle that runs from the hat on the left, down the pipe (nice and bright to catch the eye) then throws you to the cards (also nice and bright). You automatically then jump to the cards on the right, up the arms, drawn by the white collar, to the face, notice the white smudge at the front of his hat, then you feel some light smudges on the background wall (you travel up from the right then down again) drawing you back to the first man’s hat. Subtle, effective, brilliant.

The card players study their cards as ardently as I imagine Cézanne was studying the canvas in front of him. It’s a scene of intense concentration and it’s partly that stillness and quiet that I like about it. Cézanne was something of a loner but always a keen observer – and that is clearly demonstrated here. Note the lack of unnecessary detail: a bottle but no wine glasses, no food, no cards on the table itself, an indistinct background. All help to focus our attention on the dynamic between the two absorbed card players.

However, now compare the above version (from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris) with the below version from the superb Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Les joueurs de cartes, Paul Cezanne, 1839–1906, Barnes Foundation

For me the Barnes version is too busy; too much extraneous detail. I prefer the quieter version with just the two players.  But if you’ve time, have a look at all the versions and see which you prefer.

* * *

< Back