Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Broken Friendship

 Zola, Cézanne, Manet and a broken friendship

As any professional artist will tell you, selling your work is often the most difficult part. In today's financial climate it is particularly onerous  but in the 19th Century, even in Paris at the height of its European dominance in the art world, it was a perilous activity.

Louis Cabie

The above painting shows the artist, Louis Cabié (standing) showing a rich client (seated) his latest landscape, in the hope of a private sale. I am particularly fond of this painting because it was done in my French studio in Carcassonne  - over a hundred years ago!

Most paintings, however, were sold via the annual Salon Exhibition, the official venue for the powerful Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris in which artists vied with each other for selection. It was a tough process, open to corruption and intrigue amongst the selectors - each of whom had their favorites to champion. Artists rejected by the Academy sought to exhibit their work elsewhere, in unofficial and often highly controversial exhibitions.

Olympia by Manet  (1863) famously rejected by the Academy

This process is described in detail (and with much satire) in Émile Zola's novel called L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece in English translation). This is the 14th novel in Zola's Rougon-Macquart series of twenty volumes and was first serialized in 1885 before being published in novel form by Charpentier in 1886. All the novels follow the fate of two branches of the same family - from generation to generation.

 Zola, painted by Manet (1868). Note the Japanese prints on the wall above Zola's desk

L'Oeuvre tells the tragic tale of painter Claude Lantier's life-long efforts to paint a great work reflecting his talent and genius. It ends trageically with Lantier going mad and hanging himself in front of his failed 'masterpiece' - a large urban landscape showing the river Seine near the Pont Neuf. Lantier is an early Impressionist, although Zola never actually describes him as such.

This novel is partly a fictional account of Zola's friendship with Paul Cézanne and a fairly accurate portrayal of the Parisian art world in the mid 19th century. Zola and Cézanne grew up together in  Aix-en-Provence, the model for Zola's Plassans, where Claude Lantier is born and receives his education. 

The Bathers by Cézanne

Like Cézanne, Lantier is a revolutionary artist whose work is misunderstood by an art-going public hidebound by traditional subjects, techniques and representations. Many of the characteristics ascribed to  Lantier are taken from the lives of several other Impressionist painters - such as Claude Monet, Edouard Manet as well as Paul Cézanne.

Zola's self-portrait can be seen in the character of the novelist Pierre Sandoz who befriends Lantier and tries to support him during his struggles with his art and abject poverty.

Cézanne's portrait of  Paul Alexis reading to Zola (1870). Zola is dressed fashionably in Japanese costume

Zola's plot is losely based on Manet's struggle for recognition. Rejected by the Salon jury of 1863, Manet seized the opportunity to exhibit Déjeuner sur l'herbe and two other paintings, in the 1863 Salon des Refusés. The painting sparked public notoriety and stirred up controversy and has remained controversial, even to this day. In the novel, Lantier's painting - not unlike Manet's - is ridiculed by the public when first shown.

 Déjeuner sur l'herbe by Edouard Manet (1863)

Zola's Claude Lantier is neither exactly Cézanne nor Manet, but from the careers of  those two painters he borrowed key characteristics. 

The poverty Lantier experiences is largely taken from the real life of Paul Cézanne, for Manet came from a rich family and never experienced the crushing poverty that eventually drove Zola's painter into madness - a madness that has already occurred in earlier members of Lantier's family as depicted in previous novels in the series. In fact, Lantier's half-sister is the prostitute, later courtesan, who features in Zola's earlier novel Nana. Zola may have taken his image of Nana from an earlier painting by Manet. After the success of Nana the novel Manet retitled his painting Nana!

Nana by Manet (1877)

Lantier's young wife, Christine is however based on a real woman whom Zola knew, the mistress of an engraver. One of Manet's young assistants who helped him in his studio later hanged himself so he may have given Zola the idea for Lantier's final demise.

While there are these close resemblances between Zola's central character and his friends within the Parisian art world it is clear that no one individual alone is the sole model for Lantier. This, however, was not a view shared by Paul Cézanne himself who did not take kindly to Zola's fictional portrait of a crazy, failed artist who finally hangs himself. 

After the novel was first published in 1885 Cézanne never spoke to Zola again. It was the abrupt end to a friendship that had otherwise endured since they were children together in Provence.

Mike Healey
Free copies of Zola's novels are readily available on the internet. 



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