Throughout his life, Paul Cézanne nurtured an ambition to paint figure compositions in the renaissance tradition. At various points in his career he thus attempted to populate his otherwise open landscapes with anonymous, lumpy nudes, often bathing. There is something uncomfortable, something unresolved, about these paintings — they seem an intellectual aspiration toward a pastoral that was beyond him, not to mention his time.

His shyness only complicated matters — not since his years as a student had he spent any sustained time drawing from the nude, and he was unwilling to hire models to pose for him. Late in life however, in the early 1890s, he began paying the gardeners and hired hands at his estate in Aix-en-Provence to sit for his pictures. The result was a number of monumental portraits and group compositions of card-playing peasants that arguably more than any other group of works in his oeuvre succeeded in capturing the grandeur of his great historical paragons.

A small, exquisite exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, organised in collaboration with the Courtauld Gallery in London where I saw it in the fall, focuses on these pictures. With loans from a number of international collections, as well as from private collectors, it unites three out of Cézanne’s five pictures of Card Players with the majority of his known preparatory drawings and oil sketches, as well as with six outstanding finished portraits of the models.

As a series, the Card Players are variations on a theme, divided into two subgroups: two pictures that show four and five figures, respectively, around a table in a sunlit room (Metropolitan Museum & Merion, Barnes Foundation; the latter not exhibited), and three that situate two figures across from each other in a darker, less clearly defined space, probably a café (Musée d’Orsay, Courtauld Gallery & private collection; the latter not exhibited).

We do not know when exactly he painted these pictures; brief mentions in contemporary sources tell us that they were painted between 1890 and 1896, but disagreement as to their sequence persists. When considered along with the sketches, however, technical examinations carried out on four of them in connection with the exhibition now reveal that Cézanne’s approach was very traditional: first, he built up his composition in sketches; then he assembled his individually designed figures on the first canvas. Then he developed the arrangement further, initially in drawings and subsequently with greater certainty and finish on the next canvas. The relatively loosely painted New York picture thus precedes the larger and more elaborate one in Merion, just as the composition of the small Orsay canvas was the first of its type.

Card Players, c. 1893-96, oil on canvas, 47 x 56 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Cézanne thus worked in the tradition of his precursors, from Titian and Veronese to Poussin and Delacroix. And he took great care: the preparatory material for these paintings is without equal in his production and demonstrates how seriously he took the work. These pictures were his bid for contemporary painting in the renaissance tradition.

And they make this clear, imbued as they are with the quiet grandeur toward of classicism. The English critic Roger Fry perhaps put it best in 1927, when he compared them to the so-called “primitive” Italian painters of the 14th century, most notably Giotto. Cézanne’s figures have the same rustic solidity as Giotto’s, and he shares the older painter’s sensitive eye — there is a trueness to life to the sideways glance of the standing onlooker in the New York picture; to the tightly held fan of cards at the centre; and to the expressions of concentration on the faces of the card players.

The card game as a subject was one of long standing, especially in the Netherlands, but Cézanne only engages this tradition superficially. Before him, the subject had invariably been used for moralising or anecdotal purposes, whereas these pictures aim for something different — the New York picture, for example, looks more like a Venetian Emmaus scene than an Antwerp tavern piece. The crucial difference from earlier depictions of card games, however, is that narrative and interaction between the characters is toned down to the point where the pictures become monumental still lives.

As one of the great masters of the still life, Cézanne must consciously have sought this effect. His sketches demonstrate that he worked out the poses of the figures individually and only subsequently assembled them on the canvas; they are like objects posed for the viewer, kept in check across the picture plane by various incidentals: the pipe rack on the wall at the right rhythmically offsets the standing man on the left, on the other side of the black hat at the centre. The curtain — borrowed from the Venetian renaissance — counters the curved back of the man seated at the right and provides a yellow compliment to his blue.

Cézanne’s pictures have often been described as ‘painting for painting’s sake,’ because they only rarely exhibit any real political, social, cultural or even emotional engagement, but rather seem to seek an analytical and sensory, neutral register. He himself repeatedly emphasised the importance for the painter in following nature’s example, in analysing and representing reality as perceived. And he conceived of the world as Platonically reducible to essential forms. When he paints, his aim is to render the object as clearly as possible, without letting himself be distracted by its meaning — rocks, trees, buildings, furniture, fruit, etc. are reduced to almost iconic signs. Their life and presence is retained in the colouring, which is invariably founded in naturalism, but at the same time it is almost hypersensitive in execution, which has the effect of elevating the sensed into the world of ideas.

But there is always meaning, and one reason Cézanne’s paintings continue to fascinate is precisely because they suggest how meaning is constituted. He scrupulously builds up the surface in small, swiftly applied, individual patches of colour that to a certain extent flow together in the eye of the beholder, but also remain clearly separate, calling attention to the painting as a construction. The wall behind the card players is a case in point: warmly illuminated by the morning sun in Aix, it is simultaneously a conglomeration of separate values, from reddish brown, blue and cyan to pink and grey, and the white ground of the canvas peers through the porous facture of the paint.

It is an analytical construction. Cézanne portrays how our sensory impressions form synthetically over time : a surface that might at one moment seem bluish in tone, might appear rather greenish upon further inspection, after which it might take on a reddish glare; the light changes, we move around, our mental and physiological state affects our impression, and so on. In Cézanne’s pictures, this is not only apparent in the colouring, but also in the way he subverts conventional perspective by depicting objects from several angles at once — as seen here in the table, which is viewed simultaneously frontally and slightly from the right. Here he laid the foundation for cubism’s later, radical challenge to naturalist representation.

Cézanne plays with an open hand. He exposes his work process: from open canvas to underdrawing, to composition by way of contour and surface blocking, he lets us follow him and gives us the impression that he might have stopped at any point : some of his late paintings especially challenge the notion of finish. This reminds us of how our experience itself is constituted as a process. It might thus seem paradoxical that time appears as if suspended in a picture such as the Card Players, but this very quality makes it an illustration of how mercurial is our perception of the passage of time. In the now as well as in recollection, time may seem as if standing still; Cézanne captures this feeling, even as our experience of the picture goes on as a process.

Ultimately, therefore, it is misleading to describe his work as painting for its own sake — he mirrors our experience, conceptually as well as sensually. He shows us reality as ever-changing, and thereby maintains our engagement in it.

This is evident for instance in the reception history of these paintings’ portrayal of representatives of a marginalised social class. Cézanne’s friend and eventual biographer Joachim Gasquet saw in them an ideological defense of conservative values, while more recently they have been interpreted in Marxist terms. Such interpretations fit rather uncomfortably with Cézanne’s apolitical attitude and the elitist tradition in which he consciously inserted himself. Nevertheless they do not ring entirely untrue: the empathy that sustains such ideologies also permeates these pictures, whose subjects — unlike the nudes in his large compositions of Bathers — were recruited from the artist’s contemporary life world.

Close relationships between people pass away with them, but a certain sense may be preserved in a picture. When Cézanne paints his card-playing gardener, who is now forgotten, he attentively conveys the very idea of a human being, but he also recreates a specific, shimmering recollection — flayed at the edges and indefinitely drawn — of a specific individual in time.

Man with a Pipe (Paulin Paulet), c. 1893-96, oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. The Courtauld Gallery, London

Cézanne’s Card Players, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 9 February — 8 May, 2011. Catalogue by Nancy Ireson and Barnaby Wright, et. al., 160 pages, $29.95.

This review was originally published in Danish in Weekendavisen in early December 2010. The picture at the top is Card Players, c. 1890-92, oil on canvas, 65.4 x 81.9 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.