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. 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.
4. The Card Players 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.
5. 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 it, setting a new record for the highest price ever paid for a work of art.
6. Whether The Card Players still holds that record is a bit of a mystery.
Because the sale between Embiricos and the Qatari royals was a private deal, the exact price paid for The Card Players is unknown. Estimates typically place the figure between $250 and $300 million, but such vague ballpark guesses make it impossible to be sure the painting's sale price is still the highest on record. However, its potential conqueror would be Paul Gauguin's Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), which was sold in February of 2015 for "close to $300 million."
7. The exact chronology of The Card Players' creation 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.
8. Cézanne looked really close to home for his models.
The men who posed for the Provencal peasants playing cards were farmhands, some of whom were employed at Cézanne's estate.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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."
12. Thieves made off with one of The Card Players.
The Card Players now 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. Details of their recovery vary: Some sources say the paintings were returned a few months later once a ransom was paid, while others claim the whole lot was uncovered a year later in Marseille within an abandoned car.
13. France commemorated the heist with a postage stamp.
To show the depths of the national sense of loss over Card Players' theft, a memorial stamp was issued, creating a colorful marker for a grim event.
14. The Card Players may have been inspired by a visit to the artist’s hometown museum.
A 17th century painting by the Le Nain Brothers—also titled The Card Players—was exhibited in Aix 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.
15. It inspired Dogs Playing Poker.
Cézanne's Card Players was one of several notable muses for American painter Cassius Marcellus Coolidge's polarizing but popular series of paintings.