A new direction
In terms of its subject matter, the series owes a clear debt to earlier depictions of card and game players by Baroque and Rococo artists such as Caravaggio (above), de la Tour, the Le Nain brothers, and Chardin; within Cézanne’s own lifetime, the theme had been taken up anew by Daumier, Meissonier, Degas, and Caillebotte.
The version at the Met
Although this would have been a familiar scene to Cézanne, we should not imagine him setting up his easel in front of an actual card game. Instead, the artist’s surviving preparatory works indicate that he studied his figures independently, one by one, and then incorporated these studies into his multi-figure compositions. Cézanne made oil studies for two of the figures in the Met’s painting (see above for one example), and both models have been identified as farm hands who worked at the Cézanne family’s estate near Aix-en-Provence, the Jas de Bouffan. Even while they share the same space, Cézanne’s figures retain a sense of independence and self-containment. They are engaged, as one art historian aptly put it, in a game of “collective solitaire.”
Formal elements trump narrative considerations
The tricolor of colors is picked up elsewhere in the composition, in the blue of the workers’ clothes, the white of their pipes and shirts, and in the red of the standing man’s cravat (left). With their vivid color combinations and flat forms, playing cards may even have had aesthetic significance to Cézanne, suggesting a model for his own practice. As early as 1876, he told Camille Pissarro about a landscape motif he was working on: “It’s like a playing-card,” he wrote. “Red roofs over the blue sea.” 
Other works in this series
A New Yorker cartoon exploits this drift to humorous effect. In it, Robert Mankoff lets still-life elements and game-playing details flood back into one of the artist’s two-figure works. He fills up the card players’ arms and table with piles of apples, reminding us of Cézanne’s close association with the fruit. “I see your Granny Smith,” runs the caption, “and I raise you a Golden Delicious” (view image here) Cézanne’s famous apples are now a specific type, as though straight from a supermarket. His figures are now not merely poker-faced: they are poker players.
Though no money seems to be at stake in Cézanne’s card games, commerce was certainly involved in the creation of the piece. By the 1890s, Cézanne was independently wealthy; he could comfortably afford to pay his models to pose and the resulting works were made out of industrially produced pigments usually applied to commercially manufactured, standard-size canvases (a “no. 25” in the case of the Met’s work). Around the same time he finished the series, the artist struck up a relationship with a Parisian picture dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who then became the first owner of the Met’s canvas. Vollard’s business ledgers record that he made a tidy profit from the work, buying it for 250 francs and, in early 1900, selling it for 4,500. The enduring appeal of Cézanne’s card players, though, may owe something to the way the five paintings provide a distinct contrast to the modern capitalism that surrounded their creation. If life can seem increasingly fast, superficial, and mercenary, then perhaps some consolation can be found here—in our prolonged engagement with handmade canvases showing a timeless, rooted, and sociable pastime.