Cézanne's series of five Card Players paintings, dating from the first half of the 1890s, have long been recognized as among the most important and very finest works he ever created. They have furthermore been counted among the greatest art works in the Western canon; Gustave Coquiot, who published the first biography of Cézanne in 1919, went so far to declare them "equal to the most beautiful works of art in the world" (quoted in op. cit., exh. cat., 2010, p. 15). Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright, the curators of the Cézanne's Card Players exhibition organized by the The Courtauld Gallery, London, in 2010, speak securely for the modern consensus when they state:
"The group has a distinctive place within Cézanne's oeuvre. The Card Players paintings are his only significant engagement with what would conventionally be called a genre subject. His considerable investment in this theme, combined with the fact that two of the canvases are among the largest he ever painted, suggest that he considered the project to be a major artistic statement. In this regard, the Card Players are comparable to his Bathers series from this same decade... This series has often been celebrated as being at the pinnacle of his achievements... Just as importantly, the paintings have long played a role in shaping Cézanne's posthumous reputation... Less than two decades after the painter's death, the works had become iconic" (ibid., pp. 15 and 25).
Of the five paintings in the Card Players series only one remains in private hands (Rewald, no. 710). Similarly, among the eight other paintings of peasants and workmen which are directly connected to the five Card Players compositions, or depict related genre figures which Cézanne worked on concurrently during the 1890s, again only one remains in private hands (Rewald, no. 705). Seven drawings and watercolors that Cézanne executed as studies for the Card Players are known to exist--three of them are in private collections. Among these works on paper is the present Joueur de cartes, whose offering in this sale catalogue is the next noteworthy chapter in what has become a remarkable and fortuitous sequence of Cézanne Card Players events that have taken place since the opening of the Courtauld Gallery exhibition in October 2010. This impressive watercolor, a key work among the studies, has been in the collection of the same family for more than seventy years, and has not been seen in a public exhibition since 1953.
The Cézanne's Card Players exhibition catalogue is the single most comprehensive and informative guide to the paintings and related works. The curators made it one of the primary goals of their research and analysis to review the chronology of the five oil paintings. Their findings, convincingly argued and clearly presented, have resulted in certain revisions to the previously supposed order in which these paintings were done. It had been widely accepted that Cézanne first completed the two multi-figure compositions. This, in the curators' view, remains the case, and both paintings continue to be dated as they appear in Rewald's catalogue raisonné, circa 1890-1892. Ireson and Wright contravene, however, a previous assumption that Cézanne first undertook the much larger of the two works, the five-figure canvas in the Barnes Foundation (Rewald, no. 706; fig. 1), and instead believe that the four-figure Card Players in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Rewald, no. 707; fig. 2) represents the artist's initial effort in this genre series. The curators have accepted the view, widely held in the past, that the three remaining Card Players paintings, all of which depict two men facing each other across a table, were done after Cézanne had completed, or mostly so, the two multi-figure canvases. They ascribe all three two-player works to the years 1892-1896, and have proposed a new sequence in their execution, progressing from the smallest to the largest in size (as is the case for the two multi-figure compositions). They place first the Card Players in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris (Rewald, no. 714; fig. 3); second, the version in the Courtauld Gallery, London (Rewald, no. 713; fig. 4); and finally, third, the painting which had been widely thought to have preceded the other two, the privately held work (Rewald, no. 710; fig. 5), which is the largest of the two-figure pictures--among the complete group of five Card Players only the Barnes Foundation painting surpasses it in size.
The present watercolor study Joueur de cartes is illustrated by the old black-and-white photograph Rewald used in his catalogue raisonné in the Cézanne's Card Players exhibition catalogue (op. cit., p. 132)--the caption includes the annotation "present whereabouts unknown." Because Rewald commented on the "vibrant accents" he found in this work, he appears to have studied it in person when the owning family resided in New York City; he nonetheless incorrectly recorded its dimensions--the sheet is 46.7 x 30.5 cm., not 61 x 42 cm. as he notes in his entry. The curators of the exhibition catalogue mentioned the present watercolor as being among the studies they believe were done in preparation for the first dual-figure Card Players composition, the Musée d'Orsay version ([Rewald 714; fig. 3] ibid., p. 118). A summary comparison of the watercolor image with the figure of the right-hand card player in the oil painting immediately suggests this connection. In addition to recording the correct dimensions of the sheet, Christie's specialists have closely examined this work, and concur with the curators' supposition. They have observed the coloring to be remarkably fresh and unfaded, allowing one to fully appreciate the wide chromatic range of colors and tints that Cézanne employed in painting this image, which relate directly to the tonalities in the Musée d'Orsay oil painting. The figure in the present watercolor conforms rather closely in its contours and general posture with the card player in the canvas; one particular tell-tale similarity is detectable in the placement of the man's legs, with his right knee extending slightly ahead of the left, as also seen in the Musée d'Orsay oil painting, the only composition in the series in which the artist positioned the sitter's legs in this way.
Rewald has pointed out an important distinction between the present watercolor and many others by the artist: "this study has been executed without a prior pencil drawing" (op. cit., p. 177). This is also true of another Card Players study, L'Homme à la pipe (Rewald, no. 378; fig. 6), which depicts the man seated across from the player in the present work, as he is positioned in each of the three dual card player compositions. Both sheets are similar in size; in fact, all the studies related to the Musée d'Orsay painting were done on sheets of fine laid paper measuring around 50 cm. in height and approximately 32 cm. wide, a format that gave Cézanne enough room to treat one or the other of the facing players. Ireson and Wright have noted that it was Cézanne's method, throughout the series of Card Players, to study the figures individually and then bring them together on the canvas (op. cit., exh. cat., 2010, p. 118). There is a related pencil study of each of the respective heads alone which appears to have preceded each of the two watercolor-only studies (Chappuis, no. 1094 for the present watercolor; Chappuis, no. 1095 for L'Homme à la pipe, drawn on the verso). In the pencil head study related to the Joueur de cartes watercolor, the tip of a pipe stem protrudes from Paulet's mouth, the suggestion of which Cézanne retained in the watercolor, but later discarded in the painting: in all three dual-figure compositions only the left hand player has a pipe in his mouth. Joueur de cartes and Homme à la pipe may be thought of as "companion" works, each contributing its part to the total conception of the oil painting. It is probably no coincidence that that height of the Musée d'Orsay canvas is nearly the same as the sheets on which Cézanne made these studies; the preliminary figures in the studies are roughly the same scale as the card players in the final form that the artist painted them. This was probably Cézanne's intention as he embarked upon the first of the dual card player canvases; in doing so he obviated the need for sizing up or down the study images and could therefore transcribe them easily and directly, making free-hand drawings--with the studies as his guide--on the canvas before beginning to apply his paints.
There is moreover a finely rendered drawing of the right-hand card player (Chappuis, no. 1093; fig. 7), of which Ireson and Wright have written: "the scale, coupled with its high level of finish, makes it unlikely mere a preparatory study... it commands the status of a finished work... Details that seem to have troubled the artist in some of the oil studies and in the development of the group compositions are resolved in this image" (ibid., p. 110). This pencil drawing was likely done as an independent statement, and did not serve any developmental function within the series of Card Players studies and oil paintings while the artist was painting them. The role of the present Joueur de cartes watercolor, on the other other hand, was probably significant and perhaps even crucial in furthering the progress of the Musée d'Orsay painting once it was underway. Regarding the latter, Ireson and Wright have written that "recent technical research has revealed the presence of a much greater degree of graphite under-drawing and reworking in this version in comparison to the Courtauld picture and possibly also the large canvas (which has yet to be examined in this manner). This reopens the possibility that it might in fact have been Cézanne's first attempt at the composition rather than the culmination of the series" (ibid.).
If Cézanne worked out much of the preliminary drawing for the first oil composition directly on the canvas, the present watercolor may not have been done until after he actually began painting the canvas, as a trial exercise in applying color, or as a corrective step in making alterations to the painting while it was already in progress. By referring to the drawing he had done on the canvas as a guide, it would have been unnecessary to begin his watercolor study with a preliminary drawing on the sheet of paper, and the artist could instead proceed directly to the next, all-important task at hand, which was to begin reinforcing contours and blocking out planar elements in the composition with his brushes and colors. One may imagine Cézanne finishing the present watercolor in a single sitting, as he applied himself with his customary rapt concentration and his uncanny intuition for skillfully placing the right amount of precisely chosen tone in the most telling places on the sheet. The juxtaposition in this watercolor of painted areas with parts of the sheet left untouched, even within the image itself, is a marvel of discreet and perfectly judged artistry. Here Cézanne has adroitly rendered--and to a large extent also intimated, through the use of negative space--the essential delineation of form and volume, of contour against ground, necessary to situate the figure convincingly within its interior environment. Through minimal means the artist has generated a surprisingly maximal and powerfully memorable effect, creating an image that is daringly open, in which he both describes and suggests the presence of form, while being entirely sufficient and self-contained in its totality. These are the signature characteristics of the artist's finest watercolors.
The method and technique that Cézanne employed in the present Joueur de cartes--the successive positioning of the constructive, form-building taches of color upon the white ground--is precisely the same as he would apply to the oil painting that lay waiting on his easel. The two color media in which he customarily worked--oil paints and watercolors--possessed different properties, but Cézanne's practice in using one or the other had become much the same, and increasingly during this decade the more fluid character of painting in watercolor would influence his work in oils, and become a significant development in the artist's late work.
The range of color and the choice of tones in the watercolor Joueur de cartes is the most varied in all the card player studies on paper. There are touches on the sheet of practically every subtle color and tint from which the painter would eventually create the rich tonalities that characterize the Musée d'Orsay oil painting: a pale greenish yellow in the card player's coat, black and gray in his trousers, red oxide and Naples yellow on the table top and legs, reddish and gray tints in his crumpled hat, deep blue and black in the shadows cast on the wood paneling behind him. As in the case of Homme à la pipe, Cézanne deftly rendered the present Joueur de cartes, in Rewald's words, "with a brush similarly vibrant and determined in its distribution of accents that create a powerful image" (op. cit., p. 177).
In 1902, Cézanne declared to Jules Borly, a visitor to Aix-en-Provence: "I was born here; I'll die here... Today everything is changing, but not for me. I live in my home town, and I rediscover the past in the faces of people my age. Most of all, I like the expressions of people who have grown old without drastically changing their habits, who just go along with the laws of time... See that old café owner under the spindle tree? What style he has!" (quoted in M. Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, Berkeley, 2001, p. 23). Cézanne's engagement with the card players subject, and his interest in the independent genre figures that he also painted during the 1890s, demonstrate his desire to immerse himself in the world of the townspeople with whom he had grown up and still moved among, to create out of their sphere of human activity pictures which display the same aspect of immutability, permanence and continuity amid the transience of a changing world that he had found while painting landscapes from nature, and still-lifes composed of perishable things.
The other figure theme that preoccupied Cézanne during the early 1890s was that of bathers in a landscape; in those paintings, however, he described an entirely different world, one that was idyllic and idealized, a world of artifice set apart from everyday living and cares, where he entered into the fantasy of a timeless, classical Arcadia. In his chosen genre subjects, on the other hand, he depicted a masculine world, a place where he could experience humble, ordinary men caught up in their mundane thoughts and daily activities, which were not so different from his own, notwithstanding the matter of his more elevated social standing relative to theirs. In his choice to delve into these characterful types, Cézanne must have sensed the promise of acquiring deeper insights into human nature, and into himself; here was confrontation with reality that might lead to a more profound revelation of the mysterious relationship between the artist, his world and his work. Philip Conisbee and Denis Coutagne have written:
"In the 1890s Cézanne turned to the estate workers, the familiar gardeners and farm laborers, either as individuals or forming them into a group to pose for the series of Card Players... The introverted and melancholy air of these groups, and of individuals such as The Smoker (Rewald, no. 756; fig. 8), may reflect the fact that in the last decade or so of his life Cézanne became increasingly aware of the dark prospect of his own mortality. This was no doubt prompted by the poor state of his health, which had been declining since the diagnosis of his diabetes in 1890. The shadow of death provides a possible explanation for his conversion to the Catholic faith at this time... His aim was to convey the inner burden of individuals confounded by destiny... And although the models are clearly recognizable individuals, they are not identified. Operating somewhere between realism and idealism, Cézanne appears to have wanted to capture the essence of these Jas de Bouffan laborers (not the everyday details of their lives, for their work was of little interest to him); he wished to convey through pictorial means the intensity of their existence" (Cézanne in Provence, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2006, pp. 16-17 and 89).
The identities of several people who served as models for the figures in the Card Players paintings are known. The name 'père' Alexandre has come down to us; he is the man standing with arms folded on the left side in the two multi-figure compositions, and there is also an oil study of him (Rewald, no. 705; sold, Christie's London, 30 November 1992, lot 16). It is especially fortunate that we know the full identity of the only man who appears in all five paintings, seated on one side of the players' table or the other; he features in the present watercolor as well. He is Paulin Paulet (fig. 9), a gardener who worked for Cézanne's family at their estate, the Jas de Bouffan, on the outskirts of Aix. We have this information from the recollections of Paulet's daughter Léontine, who posed for the little girl in the five-figure Barnes Foundation Card Players. Paulet is also the subject of four single-figure genre oil paintings, all of which he created concurrently with the Card Players during the years 1891-1896. These are three versions showing a seated man smoking a pipe (Rewald, nos. 756 [fig. 8], 757 and 790)--together with a related watercolor drawing (Rewald, no. 381)--and a painting that depicts a standing peasant (Rewald, no. 787).
Cézanne had lived in the Jas de Bouffan since he was twenty years old, and he knew the local peasants and laborers well, although because of differences in class he would not have socialized with them in too familiar a manner. However, as Theodore Reff has pointed out, "Far from being indifferent to the peasants he saw every day in Aix and at the Jas de Bouffan, he admired their simplicity and their natural dignity, identifying these with qualities in his own personality... it was not simply because they were available models, but because they were admirable and congenial people" ("Cézanne's 'Cardplayers' and their Sources," Arts Magazine, November 1980, p. 114).
The immediate inspiration for Cézanne's choice of the card players as his only major genre subject is unknown; certainly there were numerous opportunities for the artist, if he were not an avid player himself, to witness such games, in social gatherings at home, in public taverns and cabarets, or outside in cafés and marketplaces. Provence had long been the home of a thriving industry dedicated to the production and distribution of playing cards, and card games were quite naturally a favorite regional pastime. It so happened that the subject of card-playing became especially topical in Provence during the early 1890s, when the central government in Paris was threatening to crack down on gambling, a vice for which card-playing generally provided the impetus and means, leading to idleness, drunkenness and disorderly behavior that many decried as being a widespread and all-too crippling problem among the working and peasant classes. Legislation was in fact introduced in 1895, and met with widespread protests from card manufacturers throughout the country, as well as consternation from large segments of the general population. Nina Maria Athanassoglou-Kallmyer has written: "It is attractive to speculate that the sudden emergence of the card-playing theme in Cézanne's work may be linked to the 1890s controversy over gambling, and to the threat it posed to one of Provence's most vital artisanal industries... Cézanne's paintings join laboring classes and popular crafts as the symbolic representatives of two vanishing species under centralized rule... Cézanne's brooding peasants stand for that marginal rural majority that constituted the core of the French nation and French nationhood" (Cézanne and Provence, Chicago, 2003, p. 215).
Cézanne worked mainly from his models in the family rooms at the Jas de Bouffan, but one may assume that his wide knowledge and deep interest in the works of earlier masters may have had some place in his conception of the Card Players paintings. He left no certain clues, however, to which antecedents he may have had in mind, leading commentators to propose numerous possibilities, ranging through the centuries from the art of the ancients to painters among Cézanne's own contemporaries. For a detailed discussion of the plausibility of these suggested sources, one should consult Theodore Reff's article "Cézanne's 'Cardplayers' and their Sources," published in the November 1980 issue of Arts Magazine, together with John House's essay "Art without Anecdote" in the Cézanne Card Players exhibition catalogue. Regarding "this long and bafflingly diverse list of potential sources," House cautions his readers: "what marks out his paintings is not their similarity, in whole or part, to any of these images, but rather their radical difference in tone from all of them. He rejected both the anecdotal language of conventional genre paintings and the hieratic, sacerdotal rhetoric of religious imagery, recreating the general configuration of his precedents in terms that demand to be viewed first and foremost as art" (op. cit., exh. cat., 2010, p. 68).
It is indeed Cézanne's resolute refusal to yield in any way to convention, anecdote or sentiment that gives his Card Players paintings their rigorous and radical modernity. Denis Coutagne has stated, "here painting is absolutely itself" (Cézanne in Provence, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 89). These paintings possess an inner reality, timeless and profound, that impresses the viewer as "a sense of monumental gravity and resistance," in the words of Roger Fry, "of something that has found its center and cannot be moved;" yet "the feeling of life is no less intense than that of eternal stillness and repose" (Cézanne: A Study of His Development, New York, 1927/1958, pp. 72 and 73). Seen through the subject of the two contending card players, we seem to peer into the mind of the artist himself, in a moment of deepest introspection, concentrating, questioning, pondering the odds, caught up in a titanic struggle of strategy, fortune and will. Meyer Schapiro has written:
"The Card Players is perhaps the clearest example of Cézanne's attitude in interpreting a theme. It is a subject that has been rendered in the past as an occasion of sociability, distraction and pure pastime; of greed, deception and anxiety in gambling; and in the drama of rival expectations. In Cézanne's five paintings of the theme, we find none of these familiar aspects of the card game. He has chosen instead to represent a moment of pure meditation--the players all concentrate on their cards without show of feeling. They are grouped in a symmetry natural to the game; and the shifting relation between rules, possibility and chance, which is the objective root of card playing, is intimated only in the silent thought of the men. Cézanne may have observed in an actual game just such a moment of uniform concentration; but it is hardly characteristic of the peasants of his Provence--their play is convivial and loud. In selecting this intellectual phase of the game--a kind of selective solitaire--he created a model of his own activity as an artist. For Cézanne, painting was a process outside the historical stream of social life, a closed personal action in which the artist, viewing nature as a world of variable colors and forms, selected from it in slow succession, after deliberating the consequence of each choice for the whole, the elements of his picture" (Paul Cézanne, New York, 1962/2004, p. 16).
Paul Cézanne, circa 1904.
Paul Cézanne, Les joueurs de cartes, 1890-1892, oil on canvas. The Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania.
Paul Cézanne, Les joueurs de cartes, 1890-1892, oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Paul Cézanne, Les joueurs de cartes, 1892-1896, oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Paul Cézanne, Les joueurs de cartes, 1892-1896, oil on canvas. The Courtauld Gallery, London.
Paul Cézanne, Les joueurs de cartes, 1892-1896, oil on canvas. Private collection.
Paul Cézanne, L'Homme à la pipe (Etude pour Les joueurs de cartes), 1892-1896, watercolor on paper. Private collection.
Paul Cézanne, Un joueur de cartes, 1892-1896, graphite on paper. The Pierport Morgan Library, New York.
Paul Cézanne, Le fumeur accoudé, 1890-1891, oil on canvas. Städtische Kunsthalle, Mannheim.
Paulin Paulet, circa 1920-1925.