This work will be included in the forthcoming online catalogue raisonné of Paul Cézanne's watercolors, under the direction of Walter Feilchenfeldt, David Nash and Jayne Warman.
In itself, this lucid, tonally dramatic image of a man seated in profile, is extraordinarily arresting: anchored only by the chair back, and two parallel lines of a wall molding, this watercolor has all the requisites that Cézanne’s English champion Roger Fry sought in a complete, self-contained masterpiece. L'homme à la pipe, together with its verso, Père Alexandre also forms a jewel-like component of one of the most monumental enterprises of modern art. The artist’s Card Player paintings, dating from the first half of the 1890s, have long been recognized as among the most important works he created; indeed, they have been counted among the greatest art works in the Western canon.
The catalogue Cézanne's Card Players is the single most comprehensive and informative guide to the paintings and related works. Accompanying an exhibition initiated in 2010 by the Courtauld Gallery, and organized jointly with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, curators Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright 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" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2010, pp. 15 and 25).
The exhibition’s curators made it a primary goal 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 John Rewald's The Paintings of Paul Cézanne, A Catalogue Raisonné, circa 1890-1892. They have agreed with 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 propose 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); second, the version in the Courtauld Gallery, London (Rewald, no. 713); and finally, third, the painting which had been widely thought to have preceded the other two, the privately held work (Rewald, no. 710), which is the largest of the two-figure pictures–among the complete group of five Card Players paintings only the Barnes Foundation version surpasses it in size.
Seven drawings and watercolors that Cézanne executed as studies for the Card Players are known to exist: three of them are in private collections, one of which, from the Eichenwald Collection, was sold by Christie’s in 2012. It is suggested in Cézanne's Card Players, with regard to the present sheet, that the verso drawing was probably executed before the watercolor Homme à la pipe: “The [graphite] head study is closely observed and pays particular attention to the contours of the man’s face, with Cézanne making numerous fine adjustments to his features; most noticeably to his chin, mouth, moustache, nose and ear” (ibid, p. 129). Both the Homme à la pipe and Eichenwald watercolor appear to relate most closely to the Musée d’Orsay’s grand two-figure Card Players, Ireson and Wright noting that it was Cézanne's method, throughout the series, to study the figures individually and then bring them together on the canvas (ibid., 2010. 118). All the studies related to the Musée d'Orsay painting were, in fact, done on sheets of fine laid paper measuring around 50 cm. in height and approximately 12 5/8 in. (32 cm.) wide, a format that gave Cézanne enough room to treat one or the other of the facing players. Homme à la pipe and the Eichenwald Joueur de cartes may thus 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.
That the pipe in the present version is set directly in front of the dado rail, the upper and lower lines of which are partly erased by dabs and washes of gray, suggests that this watercolor precedes the dual-figure paintings, where the pipe is below the rail. Yet just where the National Gallery’s oil study Homme à la pipe fits into the sequence is less clear, reminding us that the precise chronology of every image from 1892-1896 remains to be fully resolved. The curators of Cézanne's Card Players cite Rewald in their note on this particular watercolor: “At this stage, the artist began to use the medium with far less reliance upon detailed pencil underdrawing and sometimes completely independently, as seen in this work” (ibid., 2010, p. 129). The method and technique that Cézanne employed here–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. 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 signature characteristics of the artist's finest watercolors.
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. Among the wide range of images that House illustrates, of particular interest are Caillebotte’s Partie de bésique of 1880, Raffaëlli’s illustration of café card players in Les types de Paris, published by Le Figaro in 1889, and Blanche’s 1891-92 image of Jesus as L’Hôte in a contemporary bourgeois setting (ibid., 2010, figs. 37, 38 and 41). However, 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" (ibid., 2010, p. 68).
House’s penetrating essay dwells also on conflicting approaches to the French peasantry (ibid., 2010, pp. 55-61). Cézanne’s Card Players series focuses us not only on his “radical difference in tone” but also on the then lively subject of what rural France meant. Painted during the first decade of the Dreyfus scandal–which brought into sharp focus already polarizing attitudes to the immigrant and the native, the cosmopolitan and the national, and the metropolitan and the provincial–these images demand reflection on French society in the late 19th century. 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 Arcadia, referencing Poussin’s geometricizing classicism. 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), 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 Eichenwald watercolor as well. He is Paulin Paulet, 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 Cézanne 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, 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).
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 was typically 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).
The peasants of south France, especially those who were employees and familiars of Cézanne, commend themselves collectively as a pre-eminent source of inspiration to the artist, in a similar manner to three of his other deeply explored subjects: his wife Hortense Fiquet, the neighboring peak Mont Sainte-Victorie, and groups of Arcadian bathers. Yet Schapiro’s characteristically acute observation takes this concept of a muse one step further, encouraging us to regard the Card Players series as a deeply personal reflection on Cezanne’s own activity. During this late period, every tache of color and every adjustment of line and perspective is a move within an iterative game, bounded by each sheet of paper and each canvas. The artist’s muse here is the practice of painting itself. Cézanne’s “selective solitaire” is indeed a game, wherein the painter relentlessly sought to challenge long-established rules of European painting, stroke by considered stroke.