Cézanne’s Card Players Were No Gamblers
Cézanne’s drawings and canvases of local labourers, brought together for an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London in December 2010, were created in his studio at Aix-en-Provence between 1892 and 1895. The paintings may be familiar to us, but what exactly are they playing?
At the tables are either two or three men, who even in this silent medium seem taciturn. Poker-faced and heavily dressed, they are looking intently at their hands, giving nothing away. This is not a raucous game: there are seldom glasses or bottles on the table, and when there is a bottle, it has a cork in it.
Games for Two or Three to Play
According to the Paget’s Games, an authority on the subject, among the most popular in late 19th-century France were Écarté and Manille. Both games used a 32-card pack (A, J, Q, K, 10, 9, 8, 7). But they are also games for two players, so this would not be the game that the trio in the painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art were playing.
At the time there were many different regional card games in France, the country that gave us the images we know in the US and UK today. The 52-pack, with the familiar suits of clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades and three court cards, were first mass-produced using woodcuts in Rouen and Lyon in the 15th century. Figures on the court cards were initially taken from history and mythology – the King of Hearts, for instance, was Charlemagne, the Queen of Spades was the Greek Goddess Pallas Athena and the Knave of Clubs the Arthurian knight, Sir Lancelot (Lancelot du Lac).
These French cards had developed out of Tarot cards. Their suits of swords, clubs, cups and gold coins are still used in southern Europe, in Spain, Portugal and Italy.
No Sign of Gambling
For Cézanne’s pipe-smoking peasants, sitting around a kitchen table (complete with cutlery drawer), card games were clearly a serious business. But there is no sign here of any gambling, no coins or chips stacking up before them. In France, gambling was the business of the rich. Monte Carlo’s casino had been in full swing for several decades by this time, and soon the casino at Biarritz would open its doors to Europe’s crowned heads. Half a century later the casino in Deauville would inspire Ian Fleming to write Casino Royale.
France Starts On-Line Gambling
These days the French peasant – a name to be proud of in France –– is just as likely to be sitting at home playing cards on a computer. And, as of June 2010, he might be gambling, too. The government introduced new legislation that permitted online gambling for poker as well as horse and sports betting, just in time for the soccer World Cup
According to Reuters News Agency, during the first month after legalisation, 1.2 million French people gambled on licensed sites, around half the total estimated number of players.
But as Cézanne’s pictures show, for the peasants of late 19th century France, cards was simply a sociable – if silent – way to relax at the end of a working day. The painter’s house, now the Atelier Cézanne museum in Aix-en-Provence, is evocative of the time, and it is easy to imagine taciturn gardeners and farm labourers sitting down to play cards here under the creative eye of the artist.