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Cézanne's Card Players - The Courtauld Gallery

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). The Card Players, c.1892-5, Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm. The Courtauld Gallery, London.

Exhibition preview

THE COURTAULD Gallery will host a Late Night Opening on Thursday, October 28, 2010. Until 9pm visitors can explore the exhibition Cézanne’s Card Players as well as the Gallery’s world-famous collection.

Visitors can also listen to live music and gallery talks, marvel at card magic, watch French short films from Cézanne’s time and enjoy Provençal refreshments in The Courtauld Gallery Café.

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Admission: £6, £4.50 concessions. Free admission for under 18s, full-time UK students, registered unwaged and Friends of The Courtauld.

Previously Posted: Paul Cézanne’s famous paintings of peasant card players and pipe smokers have long been considered to be among his most iconic and powerful works. This landmark exhibition, organised by The Courtauld Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, will be the first to focus on this group of masterpieces.

Described by Cézanne’s early biographer, Gustav Coquiot, as being “equal to the most beautiful works of art in the world”, Cézanne’s Card Players will provide a unique opportunity for visitors to enjoy these remarkable paintings in unprecedented depth.

The exhibition will bring together the most comprehensive group of these works ever staged, including three of the card player paintings, five of the most outstanding peasant portraits and the majority of the exquisite preparatory drawings, watercolours and oil studies.

The first mention of the card player series comes in 1891 when the writer Paul Alexis visited Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence and found the artist painting a local peasant from the farm on his estate, the Jas de Bouffan.

A number of different farm workers came to sit for him during these years, often smoking their clay pipes. They included an old gardener known as le père Alexandre and Paulin Paulet, who posed as the figure seated on the left in The Card Players, a task for which he was paid five francs.

Cézanne’s depictions of card players would prove to be one of his most ambitious projects and occupied him for several years. It resulted in five closely related canvases of different sizes showing the men seated at a rustic table playing cards, including versions from The Courtauld Gallery, the Metropolitan Museum and the Musée d’Orsay.

Alongside these he produced a larger number of paintings of the individual farm workers who appear in the card player compositions, major examples of which will be reunited from the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, together with The Courtauld’s Man with a Pipe.

Cézanne devoted himself to his peasant card players, often repeating his compositions, striving to express the essence of these sun-beaten farm workers whom he found so compelling. Rather than posing his models as a group playing cards, Cézanne made studies of them individually and only brought them together as opponents on the canvas itself.

For him, the local peasants of Aix were the human equivalent of his beloved Montaigne Sainte-Victoire that presided over the town – steadfast, unchanging and monumental. As he later put it, “I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs”.

Cézanne’s card players are not shown as rowdy drinkers and gamblers in the way that, for centuries, peasants had been depicted in rural genre paintings. Rather, they are stoical and completely absorbed in the time-honoured ritual of their game.

As the famous English critic Roger Fry wrote: “It is hard to think of any design since those of the great Italian Primitives… which gives us so extraordinary a sense of monumental gravity and resistance – of something that has found its centre and can never be moved.”

The monumentality of the works epitomise Cézanne’s stated aim to produce “something solid and durable, like the art of the museums”. Appropriately, one of the first works by Cézanne to enter a museum collection was The Card Players, which was accepted by the Louvre in 1911, five years after the artist’s death.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Cézanne’s card player and peasant works is that their evocation of unchanging traditions was achieved by pushing the boundaries of painting in radical new directions. Cézanne painted freely and inventively without the conventional aid of detailed preparatory under-drawing on the canvas. His peasants are rendered through a vibrant patchwork of brushstrokes, which animates the surface of the paintings.

For most nineteenth-century viewers his technique would have appeared as coarse as his peasant subject matter but the card players would prove an inspiration to later generations of avant-garde artists. For Pablo Picasso, Cézanne’s peasants were a touchstone for his Cubist portraits and their example resonates throughout the twentieth century with particular homages paid to them by artists as diverse as Fernand Léger and Jeff Wall.

The Courtauld Gallery’s world-renowned Cézanne collection includes two of the masterpieces from this series, The Card Players and Man with a Pipe. These will be joined by major loans from international collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which will be the second venue for the exhibition from February 8 to May 8 2011.

The show will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, including contributions from leading Cézanne scholars, John House (The Courtauld Institute of Art) and Richard Shiff (University of Texas at Austin). It will also present the results of new technical research conducted especially for the exhibition, which sheds fresh light upon Cézanne’s working practice and challenges established views about the sequence of the card player series.

Cézanne’s Card Players Gallery

Dates: October 21, 2010 to January 16, 2011.

Opening hours: Daily from 10am to 6pm, last admission at 5.30pm.

The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN

Tel: +44 (0)20 7848 2526

The Courtauld Collects! 20 Years of Acquisitions continues at The Courtauld Gallery until September 19, 2010.