Paul Cezanne’s famous paintings of peasants constitute a gem of an exhibition at the Met. His early biographer, Gustav Coquiot, described these Cezanne paintings as “equal to the most beautiful works of art in the world”. It's no exaggeration.
In describing the peasants around his ancestral home of Aix-en-Provence, France, Paul Cezanne commented, "I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs."
Paul Cezanne, Study for The Card Players. Oil on canvas, ca.1890-92. Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA.
He had no such reverence for tradition in painting, though: claiming "art is a harmony parallel to nature", Cezanne moved beyond the limits of Impressionism to become, in Picasso's words, "the father to us all". The three Cezanne paintings of card players underscore Picasso's praise and Cezanne's stature in art history.
Rather than doing preliminary sketches of his final composition, Cezanne studied each man individually, convening all the models only when he worked a final canvas. These prepatory oil sketches, drawings, and watercolors - many of which are in the show - enhance appreciation of the final Cezanne paintings.
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) lived at his ancestral home in Aix-en-Provence, France, whose landscapes and peasants recur in his artwork.
A frequent model was his gardener, Paulin Paulet, who sits on the right in the smallest of the three Card Players versions (right).
Paul Cezanne, The Card Players. Oil on canvas, ca. 1890 - 1905. Approximately 19" by 22 1/2". Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
The pronounced, dark vertical hovering above the table would have, by the hand of a less gifted artist, derailed the painting. Instead, it seems to assert Cezanne's intention to ignore an academic approach to painting.
Art historians have generally believed that this Card Players was the last of the three Cezanne painted, with the art historian, Meyer Shapiro, going so far as to say this Card Players is “the most monumental and most refined”.
X-ray analysis by the show's organizers, the Met and Courtauld Institute, reveals, however, numerous changes and extensive underdrawings in this version, leading the art museums to conclude that this Card Players is the first.
In a slightly larger version of Card Players, Cezanne has subtlely reworked the composition – the table and two men are now parallel to the picture plane. Again here, the mass of the men is captured brilliantly with Cezanne's sense of color and understanding of creating volume.
Regrettably, the largest Card Players – privately held - isn’t in the show.
The Met has instead a full-scale reproduction in black and white (making me curious why it wasn't in color). Even in such a compromised version, you see how Cezanne captured both spatial depth and pattern at once, earning him the stature, according to Matisse, as "a benevolent God of painting."
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