14 Things You Should Know About Paul Cézanne’s ‘The Card Players’

One of the paintings in the series was stolen from a museum and held for ransom. Another sold for a record-breaking price.

Portion of ‘The Card Players,’ 1890–1892, by Paul Cezanne.
Portion of ‘The Card Players,’ 1890–1892, by Paul Cezanne. / Fine Art/GettyImages

French master Paul Cézanne’s works have been credited with bridging the gap between 19th century Impressionism and 20th century Cubism. But his finest accomplishment might well be The Card Players, which continues to fascinate art lovers and set records.

1. The Card Players is not one painting, but five.  

Created between 1890 and 1895, this quintet of oil paintings is considered a cornerstone of Cézanne’s “final period,” when he created some of his most acclaimed works. 

2. Their sizes vary greatly. 

The canvases range from roughly 4 1/2 by 6 feet all the way down to just 1 1/2 by 2 feet.

3. The Card Players may have been inspired by a visit to the artist’s hometown museum. 

Paul Cézanne In His Studio In Les Lauves
Paul Cézanne in his studio in Les Lauves. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

A 17th-century painting by the Le Nain Brothers—also titled The Card Playerswas exhibited in Aix-en-Provence, France, during Cézanne’s time there. It’s believed that the baroque depiction of men engaged in cards was a powerful muse for the boundary-pushing painter. 

4. The exact chronology of the creation of The Card Players paintings is a matter of debate. 

Art historians have long believed the paintings’ compositions showed Cézanne had scaled down on figures (from five to two), setting, and canvas size as he progressed through the series. However, the findings of infrared scans of the pieces have called this commonly accepted theory into question. Instead, it’s possible he used the smaller pieces to work his way up to the bigger, more complicated canvases.

5. Cézanne looked really close to home for his models.

Jas de Bouffan by Paul Cezanne
‘Jas de Bouffan’ by Paul Cezanne. / Leemage/GettyImages

The men who posed for the Provencal peasants playing cards were farmhands, some of whom were employed at Cézanne’s estate, Jas de Bouffan. The man smoking the pipe was the gardener, who apparently made 5 francs for serving as a model.

6. Cézanne did extensive planning before painting. 

During the five-year span in which he painted The Card Players, Cézanne created a dozen or so sketches and several painted portraits as practice for his series. The same farmhands were called on, sometimes again and again, to sit for these test studies. 

7. Cézanne may have captured the café on location. 

With so many tests of The Card Players uncovered, it’s been speculated that these sketches and early portraits were made while the models posed in a local café. From there, the practiced painter used these pieces—instead of the living models—as sources for the final paintings. This theory is supported by infrared scans that show a great deal of sketches and repainting within the acclaimed works. As the Metropolitan Museum of Art notes, “The Metropolitan’s canvas shows how he struggled to assemble these figures around a small table. Note, for example ... the ‘haloes’ around the figures seen in the X-radiograph that chart the numerous adjustments on his canvas as he created his now-iconic composition ofCard Players.”

8. These card players weren’t betting men.  

None of the five paintings show any money on the table for antes or pots. It has been speculated the quiet nature of the game combined with the lack of gambling could mean these men are enjoying a game similar to gin rummy

9. The Card Players defied the emotional convention of such a scene. 

Similar scenarios seen in 17th-century Dutch and French art were defined by drama, like drunken buffoons bickering, brawling, and otherwise behaving badly. But Cezanne’s take on card players was true to his style of muted emotion. Instead, his scene is so quiet it has been described as ”human still life.”

10. The Card Players paintings are spread around the world.

Though sometimes reunited for shared exhibitions, The Card Players share no common home. One that features four men and a dour-looking boy is a highlight of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. A similar piece that lacks the little boy can be found in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of three that portray a pair of card players is on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Another can be seen at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art, while the last is part of a private collection belonging to the royal family of Qatar. 

11. One of The Card Players sold for a record-breaking sum. 

As you might imagine, it costs a pretty penny to own art so coveted by prestigious museums. In 2011, Qatar’s royal family paid Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos more than $250 million for the honor of owning the artwork, which is believed to be the last of The Card Players series that Cézanne painted. Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, called it “the darkest, the most stripped down and essential” of the series. The sale set a new record for the highest price ever paid for a work of art. Though it no longer holds the top spot on the list of most expensive paintings ever sold—that belongs to Salvator Mundi, a work thought to be painted by Leonardo da Vinci that sold for more than $450 million in 2016—it’s still in the top five.

12. Thieves made off with one of The Card Players.

The Card Players on exhibit in Paris was in the hands of bold burglars in August of 1961. It was the most famous of eight Cézanne paintings snatched from a traveling show in his hometown of Aix-en-Provence, France. According to newspaper reports at the time, the paintings were nabbed in between pre-dawn guard shifts (or possibly while the guards napped) at the Pavillon Vendôme, where the works were being housed; one of the thieves reportedly hid in the museum after closing and then let accomplices in through the second floor window. They went out the window and climbed down a gate, leaving just a smudged footprint behind on the windowsill. “This is as close to a perfect crime as any I ever want to see,” one French detective said. The paintings were later returned after a ransom was paid.

13. France commemorated the heist with a postage stamp. 

To show the depths of the national sense of loss over the theft of The Card Players, a memorial stamp was issued, creating a colorful marker for a grim event. 

14. The Card Players inspired Dogs Playing Poker.

‘A Friend in Need’ from C.M. Coolidge’s series ‘Dogs Playing Poker.’
‘A Friend in Need’ from C.M. Coolidge’s series ‘Dogs Playing Poker.’ / Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cézanne’s Card Players series was one of several notable muses for American painter Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s polarizing but popular series of paintings.

A version of this article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated for 2023.