“Cézanne’s Card Players,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sounds like a show for our high-stakes moment. But the real appeal of this mini-blockbuster is its modest vision of a rural pastime, rendered with infinite patience. The big players who dominate the art world today would have a hard time identifying with Cézanne’s peasants and laborers: men quietly passing the time, happy enough with the hand that life has dealt them.
With his series of “Card Players,” Cézanne reclaimed — and transformed — an activity from 17th-century genre painting. He dispensed with the sermonizing implicit in most earlier images of card playing, replacing sloppy-drunk gamblers with sober, stone-faced tradesmen. Yet he stopped short of portraiture, keeping his subjects — who were also his employees — at a socially appropriate distance.
“Today everything is changing, but not for me,” Cézanne said. “I live in my hometown, and I rediscover the past in the faces of people my age.” He found at least two such faces close at hand, on his family’s estate outside Aix-en-Provence: those of the gardener Paulin Paulet and the farm worker Père Alexandre.
At the Met these rugged characters appear again and again in the paintings and in numerous individual figure studies. Yet we never really get to know them; they remain “types,” as defined by their leisure activities —card playing, smoking — as they are by their métiers, their work.
In that sense the “Card Players,” which all date from the 1890s, romanticize agrarian Provençal culture and reaffirm centuries-old French social hierarchies. They’re the product of an isolated man in his 50s, living and working on his family estate hundreds of miles away from an uproarious Paris. But it’s impossible to ignore the paintings’ overtures to Modernism: their patchy surfaces, compressed spaces and figurative liberties, which have moved Léger and Jeff Wall, among others, to pay tribute.
“Cézanne’s Card Players” was organized by the Met in conjunction with the Courtauld Gallery in London, where it appeared last fall. The Met’s version of the show has fewer major works, even without accounting for the absence of “The Smoker,” from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg; a recent legal dispute has prevented that painting from traveling to the United States. Two important versions of the “Card Players”— the Barnes Foundation’s large one, which never travels, and a smaller canvas from a private collection — are here only in reproduction. But the Met’s incomplete deck is still deeply engrossing.
The Met curator Gary Tinterow has fleshed out the show with a small gallery of works from the museum’s collection that typify the card-playing and smoking genres. These include 17th-century Dutch and Flemish etchings of jolly taverngoers, politically incisive 19th-century cartoons by Daumier, and Manet’s print of a philosophical-looking smoker.
The players in most of these works are prone to greed, lust or acts of violence — sometimes all three. An etching after Caravaggio’s “Cardsharps” carries an inscription from Horace: “That game indeed gives rise to restless strife and anger.”
Cézanne had clearly studied images like this one; he called his “Card Players” “souvenirs of the museums.” But he managed to separate the motif from its attendant morality.
Wine? In Cézanne’s paintings there’s sometimes a bottle on the table, but no glasses. Women? Not a one. And gambling? We don’t see any money changing hands. Nor do we have any sense of who’s winning or losing.
Much wall text is devoted to the curatorial parlor game of sequencing the paintings in the series; new research indicates that Cézanne worked on the four- and five-figure groupings first, then moved on to the two-player compositions.
More intriguing, to the nonexpert, is Cézanne’s way of shuffling the cards: making individual studies and then assembling them on canvas, in various permutations. This explains the curious lack of interaction between the players — “a kind of collective solitaire,” in the words of the critic Meyer Schapiro.
The alienation is most pronounced in the Barnes painting, but it’s apparent enough in the Met’s version. The table seems hardly big enough to accommodate the three broad-shouldered men, yet each is absorbed in his hand. A fourth, standing, waits his turn.
The mood is more intense, and the dynamic a bit less stable, in the two-player groupings on the opposite wall. (One hails from the Musée d’Orsay, the other from the Courtauld.) The peasants, seated on opposite sides of a table, mirror each other’s gestures; a wine bottle divides the scene neatly in half. But the scene, though exquisitely balanced, isn’t symmetrical; the table is slightly askew, and you can tell from the men’s shoulders — one pair thin and rounded, the other broad and square — that they would not be well matched in a fight.
The angular physique belongs to the gardener, Paulet, recognizable from several studies. The other man, with the pipe and the more Gallic profile, also appears on paper but hasn’t been conclusively identified. Both, along with Père Alexandre, return in a final and phenomenal gallery of single-figure paintings.
Here smoking, not card playing, is the main activity. You can almost smell the tobacco in “Man With a Pipe,” with its proto-Giacometti, nicotine-stained palette, and “The Smoker” (from the Kunsthalle Mannheim, the only one of three “Smokers” to have made the trip). Looking at the able-bodied yet vacant-eyed figure of Paulet, in the riveting “Smoker,” you sense that Cézanne needed his subjects to be as absorbed in their leisure as he was in his work.
It’s strange, then, that the young peasant in another standout painting — from a private collection — isn’t smoking or playing cards or doing anything at all. His eyes are downcast but expressive, shaded with anxiety or exhaustion. Here Cézanne comes close to portraiture. Otherwise, he is a master of the poker face.
By KAREN ROSENBERG
Ney York Times