In the 1890’s Cézanne undertook his painting campaign devoted to the card players for which he enlisted local peasants and for which he relied on quite a large number of preparatory studies. He painted five versions of this genre scene. The first picture that he made is the largest and most complex with five figures and is in the Barnes Foundation. In historical context in terms of Clark’s acquisition, it’s interesting because Barnes bought his picture in 1925 and it was the frontis piece of a rather high profile publication that Barnes put out.
Clark bought his just a few years later in 1931. His is the second version by the artist. It’s one-half the size of the one at the Barnes. Cézanne’s first rendition is more anecdotal, there’s more decoration of the interior, there’s a little girl that looks on, the figure in the center doesn’t wear a hat. When Cézanne returns to the motif he simplifies, he streamlines the conception: Four men are wearing hats, and four pipes on the wall suffice for decoration. So his second one is a more focused, concentrated composition. The last three versions depict just two men starkly confronting each other across the table.
What’s interesting to me is that these three pictures which Clark bought in succession, The Card Players (purchased in 1931), The Circus Sideshow (1932) and The Night Cafe (1933) are roughly contemporary works. They are distinctive for both Cézanne and Van Gogh in terms of being interior scenes and multi-figured compositions. Neither artist did very many works of this type.
And I believe that Van Gogh was very aware of Seurat’s Circus Sideshow when he sat down to render his interior of the cafe by gaslight. Both artists exhibited work in the 1888 Salon des Independants in Paris and when he set off for Arles, the last thing Van Gogh did before he boarded the train was to visit Seurat’s studio. He may not have seen Circus Sideshow but certainly must had read reviews of it in the Salon commentary as he was reading about his own works on view. I can’t help but think about its bearing on Van Gogh’s Night Cafe, painted a few months later in 1888. It takes up a similar subject, namely a night-time effect under gaslight. Who knows if Clark had an inkling of this connection between these two artists.
EDITOR’S NOTE: With its powerful use of expressive color, by Van Gogh’s own admission, he describes The Night Cafe as a painting in which he “tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.” Circus Sideshow, one of only six large-scale paintings that Seurat created in his all-too-brief 10-year career, is a night scene of a traveling circus painted with small touches of paint in the pointillist technique that he had developed, inspired by scientific theories of color.
Martha Newfield is an artist/instructor living in Cincinnati, Ohio.