The Special Exhibition of Cezanne’s work on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until May 8, 2011 confirms the master’s importance and solidifies his influence on modern art as a whole.

Pablo Picasso once characterized Paul Cezanne ‘the father of us all’ – the “all” meaning every painter who identified with the modernist movement – and Cezanne apparently “referred to himself as the Moses of Aix” (Feaver 128). Cezanne is perhaps best known for his 1906 masterpiece “The Large Bathers,” a modern art essential work that served as the inspiration for Picasso’s later masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”.

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One of the paintings on display in this exhibit is Paul Cezanne’s “The Card Players,” which dates from 1890–92. It is oil on canvas and measures 25 3/4 by 32 1/4 inches. Cezanne was in his early fifties and resided on his family estate at Aix en Provence in France at the time of its inception and execution. Aix en Provence provided the backdrop as well as the subject matter for the work; it was here that he used the local peasants employed by his family on the estate to sit for the paintings.

“The Card Players” is part of the Metropolitan Museum’s Special Collection put together by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and The Courtauld Gallery based in London, England. This painting is part of an exhibition that opens with engraved reproductions that locate card playing in its historical and artistic context from Renaissance painters to Flemish and Dutch Baroque masters (Campbell n.p.).

The exhibit also shows Cezanne’s studies used for the Card Players series, as well as three of his five major oil paintings that focus on card playing. The exhibit also houses portraits of some of the men who posed as the original Card Players (Campbell n.p.).

In the “The Card Players,” three men sit playing cards at a table while a fourth watches from the rear of canvas smoking a pipe. Overall it is a monochromatic work: the colours stay within the blue palette, with subtle contrasts of light blues against darker blues, and colder blues that give way to warmer indigo and violet hues.

Red is used to delicate effect – in the cravat of the pipe smoking spectator and upon the face cards on the table. “The Card Players” is a “single figure study,” and the cards at first glance appear to be little more than smudges (Schjeldahl 78). However upon close inspection it is apparent that the “clutter of coarse, arbitrary-seeming strokes” actually comprises flesh and blood men (Schjeldahl 78).

The compilation of images seems to belong together and yet conflict and contrast with each other at the same time. The card players and pipe smoker, painted in a rich tapestry of bronzes and golds, fight the dogmatic nature of the colder blues and grays. In these paintings, the master detail reveals the painter’s obsession with reality, almost as if “Cezanne starts with a psychologically intense close-up and then steps gradually backwards” (Campbell-Johnston 15).

The main draw of the work remains Cezanne’s brushwork. The master was intensely exact and attempted to paint exactly as people saw, “to the testimony of eyesight,” thus the angles within the painting are slightly askew, testifying to the function of vision from the right eye as it moves to the left. The brushwork strikes bold forms into being with dark globs of colour, and he creates “surfaces so exciting that they seem almost to vibrate as you look” (Campbell-Johnston 15).

Essentially Cezanne points out to the viewer the illusion involved in the act of seeing. The net effect on the viewer of this brushwork seems simultaneously haphazard and intricately detailed, and the overall emotional impression of the canvas reflects this paradox. The viewer feels conflicting emotions while observing the canvas – the card players appear simultaneously thrilled and dejected, contented and forlorn, there and not there.

Though he began as an Impressionist, Cezanne doggedly worked through and surpassed Impressionism, as he was “dissatisfied with a style that sacrificed physical structure to retinal sensation.”

Cezanne’s goal was to find a way for painting to mirror the way of seeing, the way the human eye, optic nerve, retina and brain worked together to render meaning out of an endless series of disparate colours and shapes. Cezanne articulated his artistic vision herein: “I want to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museums.”

Cezanne eventually grew to the stature of the “beau ideal of modernist values” (Schjeldahl 78). According to Schjeldahl, his work came to represent for the twentieth century what paintings by Raphael had represented for earlier movements in that Cezanne’s paintings made “our perceptions of art inextricable from how it comes to be. Our eyes and minds, as we look, repaint the picture” (Schjeldahl 78). The exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers viewers a chance to see a modernist master’s work up close and personal.

Works Cited

Campbell, Thomas. “Audio Guide.” www.metmuseum.org. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Special Exhibitions. Web.

Campbell-Johnston, Rachel. “Best show in London? It’s on the Cards; Cezanne’s Meticulous Studies Give his Gamblers a Human Dignity, says Rachel Campbell-Johnston.” Times [London, England] 20 Oct. 2010: 15. Web.

Cezanne, Paul. The Card Players. 1890-1892. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Special Exhibitions, New York. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web.

Feaver, William. “The Moses of Aix.” ARTnews Dec. 1995: 128. Web.

Schjeldahl, Peter. “Game Change.” The New Yorker 28 Feb. 2011: 78. Web.