Playing Cards: France

Joueurs de cartes

The picture at the left is a detail from a painting by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) titled les Joueurs de cartes (The Card Players) an oil on canvas painted sometime between 1885 and 1890. The original is in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Although one cannot see the suits of the cards these men play with, it might be assumed that they are using a deck which was used in France in the 19th century - a deck familiar today in many parts of the world.

Know as the French National Suits - the suit indicators are spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs. While earlier cards were printed using individual wood blocks, undoubtedly, the cards in the painting were made with a printing press by the time of Cézanne. Also by the time of this painting, playing cards had been used throughout France since the 15th century as indicated by legislation.

15th Century Deck

The playing card deck illustrated in the photograph at the left is a reproduction of a 1453ad deck attributed to Johan Personne, master cardmaker at Lyons, France. This reproduction was taken from a molding sheet for the original deck. This copy was acquired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City) in 1981. The deck is called Le Cartes Jeanne d'Arc or Jeu De La Pucelle. The flap box (9.5cm long x 6.5cm wide x 2cm thick) features a picture of Jeaane d'Arc in clothes of the 15th century. Her title is on the banner at her side. The reverse side of the box (not illustrated) indicates the names of the people pictured on the face cards. Each card is 8.75cm long x 6.5cm wide. Backs (upper right in photo) are cross hatched. Early French cardmakers dropped the "knight" face card found in other European decks, and added a "queen" card. There are 12 face cards, and numbered cards from 1 (Ace) to ten. Traditional French suit indicators appear on the cards. These are: spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs. Some of the face cards - Kings R(oi), Queens D(ame), Knave V(alet) are pictured. The name of each historic person on a card is printed on the card.

17th Century Deck

A similar historic reproduction (also acquired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1981) is the deck partially pictured at the right. The original deck is in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and was created by Francois Deletre sometime between 1672 and 1698. Note that the suitcolors in this French deck now seem to be standard. As illustrated, the spade suit is black, the heart suit is red, the diamond suit is red, and the club suit is black. The suit indicators also seem to be standardized.

A larger and more elaborately designed deck than the earlier one pictured above, each queen (D) as well as each king (R) is seated on a horse and has a name printed on the card. The box (20cm long x 9.5cm wide x 6.5cm thick pictured upper right) houses cards that are 19cm long x 9cm high. Card backs are pictured below the box. Numerals with suit indicators are in the upper left and bottom right of each card.

Some authorities indicate that the corner suit indicators (as well as does the double sided court cards) were invented by French cardmakers, and did not become standard on French decks until the nineteenth century; however, the evidence is not clear that these playing card patterns were a French invention. This deck, as the previous one, includes 56 cards. It does not include a "joker". (The "joker" was invented in the United States in the 19th century.) Certain regional standard face cards were available as early as the 15th century. French cardmakers like other European cardmakers, occasionaly designed custom decks for special customers and for special events. An example can be seen in the following deck.

18th Century Deck

This historic reproduction (partially pictured at the left) was also acquired from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1981.The flap-top box (upper left) is 9.2cm long x 6.4cm wide x 2cm thick.

The picture on the front of the box is of Voltaire, and around the picture is an oval band with the names of other famous French author/philosophers of the time - Rousseau, Moliere, La Fontaine. The deck is titled Jeu Des Philosophes de l'An II.

The deck was published by Gayant in Paris in 1793, and the original resides in the National Museum in Paris. There are 56 cards divided into four suits. Each of the face cards pictures a famous French author, philosopher, or politician of the 18th century. Each card is 8.8cm long x 6.3cm wide. The card backs are pictured in the upper right.

Pictured at the below are cards from companion decks donated to the collection in 1978 by a visitor from France. The decks were made in the 20th century. The double box set of 112 cards commemorated the French Revolution. The deck was manufactured by B.P. Grimaud in France, and has been modified for contemporary use.

French Revoution Commemorative Deck

For example, there only 3 face cards in each suit. The box (11.1cm x 15.5cm wide x 3.5cm thick) with its folding top has a gold scroll design on the top, and the sides and the bottom are unmarked. The interior is lined with red velvet cloth, divided into two sections, with a red ribbon which holds the cards in place and enables one to lift out each deck.

A dedication note from the donor is taped to the inside of the double box. The cards (8.8cm long x 6.3cm wide) are numbered 1 (Ace) through 10. Face cards picture personages from the Revolutionary period. The backs of the cards are reproductions of cards manufactured during the Revolution - picturing the worker's symbol and the motto Vivre Libre ou Mourir.

The Cries of Paris

Another commemorative deck (pictured on the left) and manufactured by Grimaud in France is titled Les Cris de Paris (The Cries of Paris).

Many merchants and trades people roamed the streets of Paris at one time "crying" out their services and wares as a type of advertisement.

This deck was donated in 1980. Each face card (8.8cm long x 6.3cm wide) pictures a person in Parisian dress of the 19th century. The 55 card deck has been modified for contemporary use by featuring the standard four suits, 12 face cards, 40 number cards, 2 jokers, and an advertisement card.

The flap-top box (9.3cm long x 6.7cm wide x 1.8cm thick) on the left of the photograph, pictures a drawing of a young boy with a knife sharpening machine. The manufacturer's name with information about the contents is printed on the box bottom.

The French Provinces

The photograph on the right is of another reproduction of a deck made in France in the 19th century. Manufactured by Maitres Cartiers Boechat Freres, Paris, the deck is title Jeu Des Provinces de France. The deck was donated to the collection in 1980. Each of the face cards, and each Ace (numbered "1" on the top row of the photograph) picture the traditional costumes people in each of the French provinces wore during the 19th century. The flap-top box (upper right) has a drawing of a rooster with a town scene in the background on one side, and an alphabetic list of the French provinces on the reverse side. The box is 9.2cm long x 6.6cm wide x 2cm thick. The modified deck of 55 cards (8.8cm long x 6.3cm wide) includes 52 cards, standard French suit markings, 2 jokers, and an additional card listing the provinces. The card backs (center right) reproduces the drawing of the rooster pictured on the box.

NOTE: This page was originally created and posted on the Web on March 29, 1997. Subsequently it has been modified and periodically updated. Last update: June 13, 2010