This picture is the only surviving study for the pipe-smoking spectator standing at the back of the large four and five figure versions of the monumental Cardplayers series (Venturi 559, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Stephen C. Clark bequest; and Venturi 560, The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Penn.). These two versions are now generally accepted as predating the three two figure versions of the Cardplayers (Venturi 556-558). Theodore Reff writes of the 'unique importance Cézanne attached to the series of Cardplayers he painted between 1890 and 1895, at the height of his interest in genre themes. In treating the same subject five times - a repetition without parallel in his oeuvre, though he occasionally painted two versions of the same picture - he affirmed his ambition to rival the masters of monumental figure painting he admired in the Louvre, but while working entirely from life. The eleven known studies in oil, watercolour and pencil of single figures and spectators [Venturi 563, 566, 568, 1086, 1088; Chappuis 1092-5; and the oil study sold at Christie's New York, 16 May 1977], all clearly made from models testify to the ambition" (T. Reff, "Cézanne's Cardplayers and their Sources", in Arts Magazine, New York, Nov. 1980).
As John Rewald remarks "The story according to which the artist had his models for the Cardplayers pose in some tavern must be discounted. Not only was Cézanne too timid to work in such populated places, it is also obvious that he was much better off at the Jas de Bouffan. There, some of the fieldworkers must have been available to him - his own employees whom he could set up in familiar surroundings, either in the manor house or in the farm buidings. This also meant that his models were people he knew well" (J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, The Watercolours, London, 1983, p. 176). This appears to be borne out by the remark Paul Alexis made in a letter to Zola of 1891, "During the day Cézanne paints at the Jas de Bouffan where a workman serves as his model and where one of these days I shall go and see what he is doing." "To sit for the painter was not an easy matter; he often demanded uncomfortable poses and insisted that they be held for hours on end...Cézanne worked very slowly and needed a week of daily sessions just to sketch on the canvas the contours of the model, a few shadows, and some indications of colour...One hundred sittings for a portrait - such as he requested from Vollard - were nothing unusual, and even then he was not always satisfied with the result" (J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, London, 1948, p. 147). As Rewald remarks elsewhere, "It is surprising that so few preparatory studies for these paintings exist, either as pencil drawings, watercolours or oil sketches. It is true, of course, that the artist may have destroyed most of these once his five canvases were completed" (J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, The Watercolours, London, 1983, p. 175).
At the beginning of the 1890s Cézanne's palette lightened and brightened so that in works like L'Homme à la Pipe and the Cardplayers we see a soft luminous colouring, comprising nuanced shades of warm greys, blue-greys, orange-browns and yellow-tans which provide a vivid contrast with the stronger, dark and mysterious tonalities of the mid 1890s paintings which were to follow. There is also a variety to his facture as Rewald observes, "He applied his colours less thickly as his brushes more easily expressed his vision. But his canvases are still sometimes covered, at least in part, with several layers of paint that bear witness to long and painful efforts. The technique differs widely in his paintings; in some the limpidity of tone corresponds to the thinness of the pigment and only the dark tones are composed by a multitude of touches of colour. In others Cézanne used the opposite method. The brush strokes are not always the same, either; sometimes they are short and wide, while in other works they are long and narrow. The direction of the brush strokes varies from painting to painting. Cézanne's technique was visibly dictated by the nature of the subject, by the lighting, and possibly also by his mood" (J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, London, 1948, p. 147).
The Cardplayers series united two important strands of Cézanne's work; "Unlike most of his impressionist colleagues - Renoir is the major exception - he was as deeply attracted to the human figure as to nature and the object, and was equally masterful in treating it. To these two types of subject matter correspond the twin sources of his inspiration: the reasoned observation of nature and the creative study of tradition. If he insisted to Emile Bernard that "painters must devote themselves entirely to the study of nature", he also admitted to Renoir, who was most likely to understand such a view, that he could call his compositions 'souvenirs of the museums'...It was only in painting a genre scene, based on living models yet composed like a museum picture, that he could work equally from nature and tradition; and among the genre scenes, only in the Cardplayers, since the others are of single figures and thus more like portraits done from life without evident compositional sources." As Theodore Reff goes on to say "So many major forms of Western Art, from Egyptian to Impressionist, have been evoked, either to convey a sense of the monumental calm and grandeur of the Cardplayers or to describe specific features of their design or style, that these five relatively small genre pictures would seem to be the culmination of the entire history of Western Art" (T. Reff, loc.cit.)