NEW YORK, NY.- A few days ago Vanity Fair reported that Qatar's royal family bought one of the 5 existing versions of Cezanne's 'The Card Players' for over $250 million. Forbes published today that it was Josh Baer of BaerFaxt who first broke it in 2011: the purchase of Cezanne's Card Players for $250 million from the estate of Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos.
The amount paid by the Qatari royals dwarfs that of the world's previous most expensive artwork. Jackson Pollock's No 5, 1948 was sold to an unknown buyer for £88.7 million in 2006 at the peak of the pre-recession art-buying boom.
The first mention of the card players series comes in 1891 when the writer Paul Alexis visited Cézannes 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 over the 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. Cézannes 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 men seated at a rustic table playing cards, including versions from The Courtauld Gallery, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Musée dOrsay. Alongside these he produced a larger number of paintings of the individual farm workers who appear in the card players 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 Courtaulds 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. Cézannes 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 in 1927: 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 epitomises Cézannes 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 artists death.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Cézannes 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, rendering his peasants 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, Cézannes 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.