The Card Players, c.1892-5
Oil on canvas
Samuel Courtauld Trust: Courtauld Gift, 1932
The Card Players, c.1887, The Courtauld Gallery, London
During the 1890s, Cézanne painted a sequence of canvases of men playing cards. Two show three players with spectators (held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pa.), and were probably painted first; in the other three the subject is simplified, with two men facing each other and seen in profile as here.
The tonality of the Courtauld's version is quite subdued, but a wide range of colour is used to model the figures and their surroundings, with soft, atmospheric blues set against the warm hues on the tablecloth and elsewhere. The colour is simply brushed on to the canvas for the most part, but at certain points, notably in the men's faces, delicate crisper accents suggest their modelling more closely. Elsewhere, for instance in the hands, small zones of unpainted primed canvas suggest the play of light.
There are certain clear divergences from 'normal' vision: the verticals of the table lean to the left, and the knees of the left figure extend unduly far to the right. Such oddities were not wilful and deliberate distortions, rather, they emerged during the execution of the painting, as Cézanne focused on relationships of colour and tone, rather than literal representation of the subject. When friends pointed out the oddities in his canvases, he used to laugh them off: 'I am a primitive, I've got a lazy eye,' he told two young artists in 1905.
Cézanne was also much too concerned with his subject matter. In the Card Players paintings he looked to a long tradition of images of figures seated around tables, perhaps in particular to the art of the seventeenth-century Le Nain brothers. At the same time he worked closely from direct observation, using local peasants as models. Cézanne felt that peasant life enshrined traditional values, which he saw as being threatened by urban fashions; late in life, he told Jules Borély:
"Today everything has changed 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 again the past. I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking customs".
In this sense, the image of peasants concentrating on their game of cards is the living counterpart to the landscape of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire that held such significance for him.
More about this painting:
See it in the gallery (click and turn to the right)
Cézanne's Card Players: the 2010 exhibition
VIDEO: Dr Barnaby Wright looks at The Card Players in detail
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