Whoa – one royal family seriously has too much money. In case you missed the headlines at the start of the month, the Qatari royal family broke ALL records for the most expensive oil painting when it paid a whopping USD $250 million for one of five existing versions of Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players. Let that marinate in your mind for a bit – that’s USD$250 million! The previous record was held by Jackspm Pollock’s Number 5, which sold for a now comparatively puny sum of USD $140 million. It almost seems just too much money to pay for an oil on canvas creation, or does it?
The Cezanne oil painting came onto the market from the sale of the estate of Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos, who was known for his extensive oil painting collection. Previously, this version was rarely seen in public as Embiricos was a very private collector. However, the authenticity and provenance of the work is without question: the first time the Cezanne card series was mentioned was way back in 1891 when a writer named Paul Alexis visited Aix-en-Provence and observed Cezanne painting an actual scene from the card players. Among the more enlightening observations was the fact that the card players were paid five francs each to pose: well, we can certainly say the going rate of a model has increased since then. Nevertheless, the five Cezanne oil paintings would remain one of the artist’s most grand projects, occupying him for several years.
Cézanne quite simply loved everyday French life and hence his relentless focus on the peasantry and their daily activities. He often repeated his compositions and reused models, so some peasants have striking similarities, whether they were painted indoors or in the field. The importance of the peasant had a spiritual dimension for Cezanne, a force of nature that was akin to the Montaigne Sainte-Victoire that was the symbol for his beloved hometown: unwavering, static and colossal. As he is famously quoted as saying: “I love above all else the appearance of people who have grown old without breaking with old customs”. The idea of old customs being the staple of art is also reflected in how the establishment viewed the works themselves: one of Cezanne’s card players was among the first to be bought by the Louvre in 1911, just five years after he passed away.
The Cezanne oil painting is rumoured to be the star attraction at the Qatari National Museum when it reopens in 2014. It will join other works by artists such as Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, which have also been bought up recently. Art industry insiders speculate the recent purchases have most likely been the result of Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the daughter of Qatar’s Emir. She is currently head of the Qatar Museums Authority and there is no doubt she has grand visiond for the gulf country. At the very least, the purchase of the Cezanne canvas artwork puts the country in good company: the other four card player paintings are held at just four other major institutions, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Musée d’Orsay (Paris), The Barnes Foundation (Pennsylvania, USA) and The Courtauld Gallery (London). Now the Qatar museum will be among the giants.