One of the many enjoyable things about some of Paul Cézanne’s paintings is that they seem unfinished. They are manifestly slowly made, yet patches of bare canvas show through oil paint; the painted backgrounds don’t quite meet the edge of the frame. Two series, the card players and the smokers, are the focus of a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that echoes some of the diligent and determined yet unconcernedly incomplete attributes of a good Cézanne.
In the first of three rooms are several dozen etchings, engravings and paintings from the museum’s prints and drawings and European paintings collections. While we may think of modern card players as gamblers-aleatory and ludic, rowdy or drunken-and smokers as just plain unhealthy, these compositions present smoking and card playing as philosophic activities. The curators display images of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish card players, and their 18th- and 19th-century French associates, as prototypes of a genre that focuses on the introspective nature of these pursuits. Perhaps the closest to Cézanne in tone are Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s solitary card players.
In the second room are 15 Cézanne paintings and drawings of card players, single figures and groups of two and four. What is notable is what is not present. The large Barnes Collection Card Players (1890-92) is not on display. Neither is Cézanne’s largest two-person card-player painting. (Life-size black-and-white photographs stand in for these.) Instead, seven paintings and oil studies and several drawings, which the scholarship behind this exhibition has established were made prior to the absent largest compositions, are on view. Because the payoff of the final composition is missing, the show becomes about the process.
The thinking that carries from painting to painting is methodological yet strangely illogical. Cézanne seems so intent on rendering symmetries that the logic of life often escapes him; the game the two men play in The Card Players (1892-96, Musée d’Orsay) becomes literal double solitaire, with no cards on the table. It brings to mind what Meyer Shapiro said of Cézanne’s card players, that they are engaged in “a kind of collective solitaire.”
Despite the tenuous fantasy of cafe, cards and smoking apparatuses, these are Cézanne’s most trustworthy figures (as opposed to his wonderfully wonky Bathers, or his oddly unperceptive portraits of his wife). You see him registering each nuance of the sitter, from the facet of a brow or profile to the cut of a lapel, and even getting right the particular distance a painter’s model takes from his task of posing.
In the last room are five individual portraits of figures, some smoking. Their mood fits squarely within the contemplative and melancholic premise of some of the Flemish smokers we met in prints in the exhibition’s first room. These paintings surprise by being Cézanne’s best portraits. They were executed between 1890 and 1896 in the South of France. The farm workers who posed as models were family employees, but they are also Cézanne’s self-identified community.
In opposition to the chic and the anonymous faces of urban life, Cézanne found, in the country house where he grew up, the subjects for the kind of durable French art he had always longed to make. In Man with a Pipe, the subject emerges from his background in the same way that houses of that region emerge from the earth. The tone-on-tone of the man’s brown suit and hat, hair and mustache in front of the brown wall speaks not just to a great technical ability but to a profound sense of belonging to a place.
Peasant models the subject’s blue jacket and white shirt in subtle short strokes of pink and light blue against a pink and light blue wall. At ease and at leisure, smoking, dignified, these paintings’ farm workers are not Courbet’s laborers breaking stones under the sun; they are subjects at repose and at home. As Cézanne wrote, “I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs.”
In Man with a Blue Smock, Cézanne renders the modern sitter in front of an 18th-century wall mural. The difference between the real man’s aged face and the blank round face of the painted woman in the mural behind him is deft without being showy. The peculiar tension of the painted sitter in front of the doubly painted background complicates the composition, pushes against the experience of making a painting itself, and what emerges as the ultimate subject is Cézanne’s attention-to composition, to texture, to the experience of vision.
One reason we visit museums is to experience a heightened attention to looking. Making a good large painting for the artist, and untangling the sequence of a series of works for the curators, seem in this case similar tasks: They both required a huge amount of slow looking; neither project has a particularly conspicuous utility; and here both are being done very well. If the French verb essayer means to try, to test out, then this exhibition and these paintings feel like essays in the original sense of the word. Despite their lacunae, or perhaps because of their unfinished qualities, there is a particular pleasure to be gleaned from this small display of patient work.