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.

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The artist Guillemet to Émile Zola, Aix, 2nd November 1866:

I have been here in Aix, this ‘Athens of the north’ with Paul Cézanne.

A portrait of his father in a big armchair comes over really well. The painting is light in tone; the look is very fine. The father has the air of a pope on his throne, if it weren’t for the newspaper that he’s reading.

The people of Aix still get on his nerves, they ask to come and see his painting so that they can rubbish it; and he has a good way of dealing with them. “Bugger off”, he says.

This latest blog post is a bit of a cheat – or cheek. I have been looking again at our Cézanne – Portraits of a Life film and I was particularly struck by how good Mary Morton (from the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC) was on this fascinating painting. Therefore I am going to ‘cut’ now to Mary:

It’s a very early portrait for Cézanne and it’s done in his style known as the ‘manière couillard’ which is roughly translated as the ‘ballsy manner’. Cézanne is using a palette knife for much of the composition but also wide brushes and really slathering on the paint in a very kind of physical, gestural way and I think he’s after an image that is quite powerful.

He wanted to make a statement certainly. He’s young, he’s a new to the Parisian art scene and he’s very ambitious.

The sitter is, of course, his father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne. He had started his business in hat-making in Aix and made quite a bit of money and then became a banker and was one of the richest men in town. You see him there sitting in his armchair, reading his newspaper, very much an image of a businessman of the day doing what a businessman would do, keeping up with the times.

The paper that he regularly read was one of wide circulation, particularly in the south of France, it was called ‘Le Siècle’, so it’s interesting that he’s not reading the paper that he normally would have read and there is this document, a letter from one of Cézanne’s friends, reporting that Cézanne changed late in the composition the masthead on this paper to ‘L’Événement’ which was a Parisian paper that Émile Zola had recently published a defence of the avant-garde and I think that, in a way, Cézanne is conflating the support of his friend Zola, who had defended him in this newspaper, with the support of his father. So it’s really kind of an homage to this moment in his career and it is an homage to his father. I think it’s quite respectful; he has a forceful presence in the picture frame and he’s brought up right against the picture plain so he’s almost out in your space. He’s quite an imposing figure.

There’s no doubt that at the inception of a picture like this he intended it for the (Annual Paris) Salon. The same year that he paints this painting he does one of his very good friend Achille Emperaire, which he actually submits to the Salon and it is rejected. So this painting doesn’t make it into the Salon until 1882 and it is, in fact, the first painting by Cézanne accepted at a Salon.

Thank you Mary – if you are ever in Washington DC, this is a must-see painting in a must-see gallery.

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