manet portrait of Zola 1866
Emile Zola by Manet, 1866

I finished Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece two nights ago. I picked it up in an absent-minded way at the Tate Modern shop after the Modigliani exhibition. It turned out to be a serendipitous choice because I’d been thinking about Paris around the turn of the 20th century and how it spawned so many great artists; the garrets and the hardship. The grainy photographs of groups of men in flat caps, holding bottles of beer, where I’d recognise Picasso next to Modigliani but many of the others have drifted into obscurity. Which is one of the central subjects of Zola’s novel: what is an artistic masterpiece and who is the judge?

I’ve long been a fan of Emile Zola and, although there are occasional new editions of his novels, I wonder if he is as widely read today as he deserves to be. Like Dickens, he was one of the great social commentators of the 19th century but, rather than using satire, he was a founder of the Naturalist French Movement. Germinal, first published in 1885, remains the most profound argument against unregulated labour and rampant capitalism that I’ve ever read, while also managing to be almost uplifting. And Nana is an extraordinarily open and sexually explicit look at the life of a 19th century French courtesan, feeding on the desires of a bloated and negligent society. Occasionally, his unswerving depictions of life in 19th century Paris can be too painful and gruelling to read. The 1877 novel that brought him fame and fortune, L’Assommoir, I can’t seem to finish. Its story of alcoholism in the working classes, of the degrading fall of a laundress into dehumanising poverty and inebriation; I find it unbearable.

What I hadn’t known before I started The Masterpiece was that it’s the most autobiographical of all his novels and was loosely, or intimately, based on his close friendship with Paul Cezanne, that started when they were boys in Aix en Province. Indeed, Cezanne was so appalled by the book that he never spoke to his old friend again. An early champion of Manet’s set, Zola’s outspoken articles celebrating the break of the Impressionists from the establishment were so shocking that some newspapers refused to publish them. The Masterpiece is scathing about the establishment and questions the complex nature of fame. The powerful Selection Committee at the French Salon that annually judged which works were to be exhibited to the public wielded enormous power and was staunchly conservative in its attitude to art. There are a couple of brilliant scenes where the public come and laugh at the new ‘Open Air’ movement. The artists stand around listening, both nonchalant and desperate for recognition; craving the sweet sigh of appreciation from the sheep-like crowds.

self portrait-cezanne
Self portrait by Cezanne, 1887

The story is of an ambitious young artist, Claude Lantier, struggling to have his originality recognised in Paris in the 1880s. He borders on genius, his work’s probably before his time and he becomes more consumed and desperate as his world collapses around him and he descends into madness. Everything is sacrificed for his Art, including Christine, who loves him, and their son, whose corpse he paints for the Salon. Everything is judged through and against his canvas, which becomes larger and larger and less coherent. His best friend is the increasingly successful novelist, Pierre Sandoz, with whom he grew up in Province and spends the early parts of the book walking all night through Paris: “We’ve got guts! We’ve got courage! We are the future!” (p127) There is also the artist, Fagerolles, who becomes celebrated and sold as far as America, although he and his circle know that he toned down and copied Lantier. There is Jory, the cynical journalist; Mahoudeau, the sculptor, and the pedestrian, peasant artist, Chaine; and Irma Becot, the prostitute, who probably becomes the wealthiest of all.

It’s a fascinating study of the consuming nature of art and, perhaps, the impossible task of creating a masterpiece; an approximation of perfection. Perhaps it’s an intrinsically insane and lonely task. It’s about the fierce idealism of youth and the artistic camaraderie that eventually dissolved with success and failure. Also, it’s a poignant study on just how much can be sacrificed for ambition. Christine pleads with Claude: “If you can’t be a good painter, we still have life! Ah, life, life!” (p343) And even the older artist who achieved enormous success, Bongrand, was tortured by feelings of inadequacy while trying to produce another success. As Sandoz says while standing over Lantier’s grave: “It was inevitable. All our activity, all our boastfulness about our knowledge was bound to lead us back again to doubt.” (p359)

It’s widely accepted that Claude Lantier was based on Cezanne; both driven and obsessed; living in poverty; often forgetting to eat; awkward and gauche around women; and rejected every year by the Salon, until an artist friend took pity and forced a painting through. Yet, Cezanne has latterly become one of the most celebrated artists of all time. The Card Players sold for around $250 million – making it either the third or fourth most expensive painting in the world. Perhaps the masterpiece was achieved, and won out in the end.

card players
The Card Players, Cezanne, 1894-5

Emile Zola, The Masterpiece, translated by Thomas Walton, revised and introduced by Roger Pearson, Oxford World Classics, OUP, Oxford, 2008

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