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The Card Players, by Paul Cezanne

Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) painted a number of pictures in the 1890s that portrayed peasants who lived in or near his home town of Aix-en-Provence in southern France. “The Card Players” (completed in 1895) was one of the more ambitious of these. It can be seen at the Courtauld Gallery in London. 

Cezanne’s preoccupation in this painting was the balance of colours and light-and-shade. Every area of the canvas is an interplay of a myriad of tones, subtly graded into each other. For the most part the colour is simply and broadly applied but the men’s faces are modelled with crisp, delicate brush-strokes.

There are problems with the composition of this painting. The table leg on the left appears to be shorter than that on the right, for example, and one has to wonder at exactly how tall the player on the left must be, given the point to which his knees extend under the table. At least seven feet, one imagines!

These details were the result of Cezanne’s concentration on the relationships on tone and colour at the expense of accurate representation, which was typical of the artist. Cezanne’s friends were known to point out such oddities to him, but he just laughed them off. 

Cezanne is known for two main themes in his work, namely landscapes (particularly of the Montagne Saint-Victoire that he could see from his home), and portrayals of local people. He felt that peasant life enshrined the soul of the region and that this was under threat from urban sophistication. He was therefore celebrating and promoting true values, as he saw them. 

It is to be noted that there is no money or glasses of wine on the table. These players are not gamblers or drinkers – they therefore represent a degree of purity or innocence that Cezanne reckoned was being lost by the encroaching modern age.

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