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His Masterpiece   By: (1840-1902)

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By Emile Zola

Edited, With a Preface, By Ernest Alfred Vizetelly


'HIS MASTERPIECE,' which in the original French bears the title of L'Oeuvre , is a strikingly accurate story of artistic life in Paris during the latter years of the Second Empire. Amusing at times, extremely pathetic and even painful at others, it not only contributes a necessary element to the Rougon Macquart series of novels a series illustrative of all phases of life in France within certain dates but it also represents a particular period of M. Zola's own career and work. Some years, indeed, before the latter had made himself known at all widely as a novelist, he had acquired among Parisian painters and sculptors considerable notoriety as a revolutionary art critic, a fervent champion of that 'Open air' school which came into being during the Second Empire, and which found its first real master in Edouard Manet, whose then derided works are regarded, in these later days, as masterpieces. Manet died before his genius was fully recognised; still he lived long enough to reap some measure of recognition and to see his influence triumph in more than one respect among his brother artists. Indeed, few if any painters left a stronger mark on the art of the second half of the nineteenth century than he did, even though the school, which he suggested rather than established, lapsed largely into mere impressionism a term, by the way, which he himself coined already in 1858; for it is an error to attribute it as is often done to his friend and junior, Claude Monet.

It was at the time of the Salon of 1866 that M. Zola, who criticised that exhibition in the Evenement newspaper, first came to the front as an art critic, slashing out, to right and left, with all the vigour of a born combatant, and championing M. Manet whom he did not as yet know personally with a fervour born of the strongest convictions. He had come to the conclusion that the derided painter was being treated with injustice, and that opinion sufficed to throw him into the fray; even as, in more recent years, the belief that Captain Dreyfus was innocent impelled him in like manner to plead that unfortunate officer's cause. When M. Zola first championed Manet and his disciples he was only twenty six years old, yet he did not hesitate to pit himself against men who were regarded as the most eminent painters and critics of France; and although (even as in the Dreyfus case) the only immediate result of his campaign was to bring him hatred and contumely, time, which always has its revenges, has long since shown how right he was in forecasting the ultimate victory of Manet and his principal methods.

Some of the articles will be found in the volume of his miscellaneous writings entitled Mes Haines .

In those days M. Zola's most intimate friend a companion of his boyhood and youth was Paul Cezanne, a painter who developed talent as an impressionist; and the lives of Cezanne and Manet, as well as that of a certain rather dissolute engraver, who sat for the latter's famous picture Le Bon Bock , suggested to M. Zola the novel which he has called L'Oeuvre . Claude Lantier, the chief character in the book, is, of course, neither Cezanne nor Manet, but from the careers of those two painters, M. Zola has borrowed many little touches and incidents. The poverty which falls to Claude's lot is taken from the life of Cezanne, for Manet the only son of a judge was almost wealthy. Moreover, Manet married very happily, and in no wise led the pitiful existence which in the novel is ascribed to Claude Lantier and his helpmate, Christine. The original of the latter was a poor woman who for many years shared the life of the engraver to whom I have alluded; and, in that connection, it as well to mention that what may be called the Bennecourt episode of the novel is virtually photographed from life.

So far as Manet is concerned, the curious reader may consult M. Antonin Proust's interesting 'Souvenirs,' published in the Revue Blanche , early in 1897... Continue reading book >>

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