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  • A Veritable Murder:Émile Zola, His Friend Paul Cézanne, and His Book L'Œuvre

A close reading of Émile Zola's L'Œuvre, whose protagonist is modeled on his childhood friend, Paul Cézanne, reveals that the novel, long held responsible for the acute demise of their relationship, is rather an unwitting chronicle of its slow decline. Considered alongside the Cézanne-Zola correspondence and set in the context of historical and biographical data, L'Œuvre Illuminates a complex and important relationship, bringing into sharp focus the tension between the idealizing mirroring that promotes creativity and the competitive aggression that threatens it.

It is for you alone that I write these pages. I know you will read them with your heart, and that tomorrow you will love me with even greater affection.

—from Zola's dedication of Mon Salon to Cézanne

I. "A magnificent book"

In March 1860, the nineteen-year-old Émile Zola (1840–1902) wrote to Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), his dearest childhood friend:

[25 March 1860]

[I] had a dream the other day. I had written a beautiful book, a magnificent book for which you had done beautiful, magnificent engravings. Our two names shone together in gold letters on the title page, and, in this brotherhood of genius, were inseparable for posterity. Unfortunately, this is as yet only a dream

Twenty-six years later, Zola partly realized his dream with the 1886 publication of the novel L'Œuvre. The fourteenth volume in the mammoth Rougon-Macquart cycle, the book would indeed bind him to Cézanne "for posterity"—not, however, by marking the immortality of their brotherhood, but by marking its end.

A substantial scholarly literature, multiple biographies, and more than one feature film take as their subject the friendship of Cézanne and Zola, "one of the seminal artistic liasons: as intimate, as vexed, as steadfast, as fascinating and as fathomless [End Page 67] as any in the annals of modernism" (Danchev, 2012, p. 28). The fictional protagonist of L'Œuvre, Claude Lantier, a failed painter of ambiguous genius, is conventionally understood as a composite character containing aspects of several artists, including Cézanne, Manet, Monet, and even Zola himself.2 But the consensus is that Zola meant Claude Lantier to be first and foremost a portrait of Paul Cézanne. Moreover, Lantier's relationship with Zola's fictional counterpart, the successful writer Pierre Sandoz, has been presumed to reflect Zola's reallife friendship with Cézanne.

Although a work of fiction, L'Œuvre has nevertheless infiltrated "the annals of modernism" to such a great extent that it has been privileged as in effect a primary source. Alexander Danchev (2012) demonstrates in his authoritative biography of Cézanne that L'Œuvre "has been plundered for intelligence on Cézanne … so pervasive is this pactice, so accumulative the appropriation, that a certain slippage may be observed, whereby Claude Lantier subsitutes for Paul Cézanne, rather like a body double … the novel is the seedbed or breeding ground of the Cézanne of legend" (pp. 244–246).) L'Œuvre has even contaminated Cézanne's own words, subtly skewing John Rewald's translation of his letters (Cézanne, 1995) toward Zola's constructed Lantier—a far less appealing and successful figure (Andersen, 2003; Danchev, 2012).

In 1866, Cézanne sent Zola a brief note of thanks for the gift of his most recent book:

[4 April 1886]

Mon cher Émile, I've just received L'Œuvre, which you were kind enough to send me. I thank the author of the Rougon-Macquart [series] for this kind token of remembrance, and ask him to allow me to wish him well, thinking of years gone by. Ever yours under the impulse of years gone by.

Paul Cézanne

For many years, this was thought the last letter exchanged between the two, giving rise to the long-standing presumption that Zola's unflattering portrait of Cézanne had come between them (for example, Brookner, 1971, and many others). But [End Page 68] despite repeated scrutiny for signs of whatever anger, resentment, or other feeings Cézanne may have had about Zola's most autobiographical novel, his response varies little in tone from previous communications and yields little insight into his actual feelings about L'Œuvre. Several close to Cézanne report that he showed no signs of ill-will toward his old friend, and sobbed for hours upon learning of his death in 1902 and again at a memorial service in Aix, leading Danchev to hypothesize that there had been no falling-out at all.

And thus it was something of a shock when in 2013 a new letter to Zola, dated eighteen months after the letter of April 4, surfaced.3 It follows Cézanne's by then formulaic response to the arrival of his friend's latest installment:

[28 November 1887]

Mon cher Émile, I have just received in Aix the volume La Terre that you kindly sent to me. Thank you for sending this new branch grown on the Rougon-Macquart family tree. I thank you for accepting my thanks and best regards.

Paul Cézanne.

When you get back I'll go see you to shake your hand.

[Mon cher Émile, Je viens de recevoir de retour d'Aix le volume la Terre, que tu as bien voulu m'adresser. Je te remercie pour l'envoi de ce nouveau rameau poussé sur l'arbre généalogique des Rougon-Macquart.

Je te remercie d'accepter mes remerciements et mes plus sincères salutations.

Paul Cézanne.

Quand tu seras de retour j'irai te voir pour te serrer la main.]

(Cézanne, 1887, author's translation; see also Mitterand, 2016)

The belief that L'Œuvre drove a sudden and catastrophic wedge between Cézanne and Zola has allowed the discourse around their relationship to downplay their creeping distance and eventual alienation, and to invite a precious nostalgia that focuses on their idyllic adolescent intimacy, wishfully extending [End Page 69] it through adulthood. Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer (1990) and Wayne Andersen (2003) in particular make vigorous but less than persuasive attempts to trace a lifelong alignment between the two, efforts only encouraged by the news of the 1887 letter (Mitterand, 2016). It thus remains unclear what happened to the "brotherhood of genius"—and in particular, why Zola painted such a disturbing portrait of his best friend. Robert Lethbridge comments that the discovery of the 1887 letter "is ultimately liberating. For it allows us, instead, to focus on the authentically determining factors of a dissolving friendship" (2016, p. 177).

Unlike previous efforts, this essay will not lean on the much-cited but less than reliable personal recollections of Cézanne by his contemporaries (for example, Gasquet, 1991; Doran, 2001). It will neither take into account the considerable legacy of psychological speculation, nor will it accept the meticulous assignment of real-life counterparts to the characters that populate L'Œuvre (Niess, 1968). For not even the sources that openly acknowledge the distorting visage of Claude Lantier—including the present effort, I suspect—are free of its presence.

Examining Cézanne's and Zola's own words and applying historical and biographical data, this essay instead returns to the source of the distortion.4 I will argue that L'Œuvre did not precipitate the acute demise of the relationship between writer and painter, but instead chronicles the relationship's ongoing vicissitudes and slow decline. Further, this essay will explore how in L'Œuvre Zola manufactured an idealized and exculpatory portrait of his relationship to Cézanne by minimizing and externalizing his resentment over Cézanne's perceived abandonment, and by projecting his own covert, pernicious envy of the painter who would help lay the foundation of modern art. Such concerns, I posit, threatened Zola and Cézanne's friendship from young adulthood, until they culminated in the disavowed act of revenge that L'Œuvre represents. The character of Claude Lantier and its contortion of the historical Cézanne into a grotesque caricature is in fact quite at odds with the sensitivity, humility, and integrity one gleans from Cézanne's letters (Andersen, 2003). Moreover, this caricature exercised greater impact on Cézanne's future reception than did Cézanne's actual response to Zola's character assassination-by-fiction. In contrast to its unflattering image of Cézanne, I suggest that [End Page 70] an analysis of L'Œuvre allows a view onto a far more accurate portrait of its author.

II. Les inseperables

Émile Zola was twelve years old when he met Paul Cézanne, a fellow student one year older, at the Collège de Bourbon in Aix-en-Provence. Ten years before, Zola père, a Venetian civil engineer, relocated his family from Paris in order to oversee the construction of civic waterworks, incuding the impressive dam that Cézanne later painted, le barrage Zola. Émile was a delicate only child who suffered encephalitis during infancy. When he was five years old, a twelve-year-old Algerian boy employed as a domestic was arrested and charged with molesting him; the charge of attentat à la pudeur is thought to indicate something short of rape, but little else is known about this incident (Andersen, 2003, p. 4). Two years later, Zola's father died suddenly from pleurisy; to make matters worse, the municipality of Aix refused to make good on the payments owed Zola père, leaving Zola fils and his mother not only without means of support, but also in debt. The boy once dressed in an ermine-trimmed suit for a family portrait was a poor student, bullied for being a charity student at the Collège de Bourbon, and teased for his myopia, small stature, and Parisian accent. Losing his heroic father was a brutal comedown for a vulnerable child, if the narrator of La Confession de Claude is any clue: "I must have been a strange creature, capable only of loving and weeping. I sought affection. From the very first steps I took, I suffered. My years at school were years of tears" (cited in Andersen, 2003, p. 3).

Cézanne's family followed an opposite trajectory. His father was a barely literate, working-class hatter; blessed with a shrewd business sense, he went from speculating in rabbit skins and the occasional moneylending to founding the bank that would earn him a small fortune. His new wealth enabled him to purchase the Jas de Bouffan, an imposing manor house in Aix that had once been the residence of the Govenor of Provence. He was also able, albeit begrudgingly, to support his son's questionable pursuit of painting. Cézanne fils was a [End Page 71] burly student who excelled in all subjects and spoke the local Occitan dialect, Maritim Provençau. He moreover was the beneficiary of the respect his prominent father commanded. One day, Cézanne stood up for the smaller Zola on the playground and broke the ban against talking to the shunned boy. The next day, Zola thanked his newfound champion with a basket of apples. Critics have attributed many meanings to Cézanne's paintings of apples, but the simplest interpretation is that they honor the gesture of gratitude that initiated their brotherhood.

Along with Baptistin Baille, another compatriot, Cézanne and Zola would become so close that the three were dubbed les inseperables. In L'Œuvre, their fictional counterparts Claude Lantier, Pierre Sandoz, and Louis Dubuche of the fictional Provençal town of Plassans go by the same designation. Their adventures comprise the most autobiographical and most poignant passages in L'Œuvre—those that were for Cézanne a "kind token of remembrance." As Zola details, they spent as much time together as possible, exploring the sun-baked Provençal countryside that Cézanne repeatedly portrayed on canvas:

their rambles covered all the surrounding district and even took them away from home for days at a time. They would spend the night wherever they happened to be … the hot, flagged threshing-floor of a barn, with new-made straw for bedding, or in some deserted hut where they would make themselves a couch of lavender and thyme. In their unthinking, boyish worship of trees and hills and streams … they found an escape from the matter-of-fact world, and instinctively let themselves be drawn to the bosom of Nature … They practically lived in the river … and would spend whole days, stark naked, lying on the burning sand.

(1886/1993, pp. 34–35)

At least for the time, the "bosom of Nature" rendered more immaterial the fact that Claude and Pierre were "vastly different in both temperament and social background." Also bringing them closer were "subconscious affinities, the vague feeling of ambitions in common" (p. 31), most of all their love for poetry—especially Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset, "who [End Page 72] overwhelmed them with his passion and his tears … their own hearts beat with his" (p. 36).

III. "The seal of genius"

The Arcadian childhood of les inseperables lasted six years before it came to its abrupt close: in 1858 Zola had to return Paris, where his mother had better prospects for employment. Cézanne and Zola maintained a passionate epistolary relationship during their first years apart. Keen wordplay and hilarious verse enliven Cézanne's letters from this period, contrasting with his underlying sadness and frustration: although he missed his friend terribly, he had decided to pursue law in Aix rather than art in Paris. This hardly put a stop to Zola's endless hectoring, lecturing Cézanne on all sorts of topics, but mainly about the virtues of art and hard work, and above all his moral mandate to join him, the penniless poet, in the romantic if unsustainable life of the artist—a dream they cherished as boys, as depicted in L'Œuvre. Here, Pierre Sandoz and Claude Lantier express high hopes for creative adventure and public recognition in a boyishly grandiose fashion:

[Pierre:] "Wouldn't it be wonderful to devote one's whole life to one work and put everything into it, men, animals, everything under the sun! … I'd turn out a series of books that would give the world something to think about!" … [Claude:] "The ideal would be … to see everything and paint everything … Life as it's lived in the streets … the peasants, the farmyards and the countryside … Then they'll see, then I'll show 'em what I can do!"

(pp. 43–44)

Claude mirrors Pierre in the intensity and details of his purpose: the realistic depiction of life in all its totality, Zola's literary ideal transposed to the realm of the visual. They would from the start be thus distinguished: "Even in those days Claude used to carry about … an album in which he would sketch bits of scenery, while [Pierre], too, always had a book of poetry in his pocket" (p. 36). [End Page 73]

Cézanne and Zola also tacitly agreed to circumscribe and limit their talents to their chosen vocation. Even though it was Zola who had won an elmentary school prize for drawing, and Cézanne who had excelled in writing, it was clear that Cézanne would be the artist, and Zola the writer, in this way remaining perfectly matched: complimentary, but not competitive. Thus with deep affection, Cézanne praises Zola's linguistic facility while derogating his own:

[9 July 1858]

Mon cher, when you have sent me your end-rhymes, For in the end-rhymes I find you adorable And in the other verses truly incomparable!

I'll get busy researching other rhymes, richer and more outlandish … I'm distilling them in my alembic brain … Rhymes such as have never yet been seen … It seems to me that I can see you read these soporific verses, I can see you (though it's a bit far) shaking your head, saying "the poetry doesn't purr in him."

Upon hearing that Zola's classmates had reacted poorly to some of his verses, Cézanne penned an indignant protest:

[29 July 1859]

Oh Crass collegian! Most ignoble scabs! …

What mad habit impels you to criticize

Him who laughs at your feeble upheaval …

Collegian myrmidons! Dragooned admirers

Of those sorry, dull verses that Virgil left us …

While in your midst, flowing like lava,

An unfettered poet, who breaks every shackle …

My friend's verses still win out!

They will withstand all your villainy,

For they are all stamped with the seal of genius.

(pp. 83–84)

Zola's gallant squire even offers the "unfettered poet" satisfaction: "if they have anything to say, I'll be here, whenever they're ready, waiting to thump the first who comes within reach of my fist" (p. 84). [End Page 74]

Already challenged by his poor scholastic peerformanc, Zola's "seal of genius" would be more sorely tested: whereas Cézanne passed the baccalaureát on his second try, Zola failed it twice. (Ironically, his baccalaureát examiners singled out his verbal ability for criticism.) This precluded any further academic pursuit, including law, to which, according to a letter to Baille written two months after Cézanne matriculated in law school, Zola had intended to devote himself. After two years in Paris, he had not been able to publish (let alone make a living from) his sentimental poetry, highly derivative of de Musset. It is in this setting that the increasingly and desperately poor Zola reconsiders his assessment of Cézanne's literary promise:

[1 August 1860]

Rereading your letters from last year, I came across your little poem "Hercules, between vice and virtue" … Those forgotten verses seemed to me to be better than they once did … I began to think. What does he lack … in order to be a great poet? … what spoils everything, are the Provençalisms, the barbarisms … My verse is perhaps purer than yours, but yours is certainly more poetic, more true; you write with the heart, I with the mind; you firmly believe what you set down, with me, often, it's only a game, a brilliant lie … You have chosen the brush, and you've chosen well: one must follow one's own bent. So I'm not about to advise you now to take up the pen … Oh! For the great poet who has gone, give me a great painter, I beseech you. You who have guided my faltering steps towards Parnassus, you who suddenly abandoned me, make me forget the budding Lamartine for the future Raphael.

(p. 102)

Abandoned on Parnassus, Zola seems relieved that Cézanne chose "the brush" and not "the pen"—a melodrama that would be comical did it not invoke the abandonment of his father's death, which Cézanne's refusal to leave Aix for Paris, even after withdrawing from his study of law, effectively recapitulated. This time Cézanne not only failed to offset the loss but also caused it. Adding insult to injury was Zola's dawning realization that Cézanne may have been the better poet ("a budding [End Page 75] Lamartine") all along. And most significantly, for the first time, he questions his aesthetic fidelity: Cézanne's lines are "true," while his own are "only a game, a brilliant lie"—a difference, a fissure between them.

Cézanne's refusal to leave Aix was another breach. Zola wrongly interpreted Cézanne's reluctance to leave Aix as surrender to paternal dictates and refused to accept as realistic Cézanne's reservations over his prospects for artistic success in Paris. He also avoided the more threatening possibility that Cézanne's attachment to his family and to Provence outweighed his attachment to Zola. His nervousness showed. Anticipating a visit from Cézanne in March 1860, Zola felt "a strong foreboding about your trip … there are moments when I ask whether I'm not deceiving myself and whether this lovely dream can really come true … I feel that a thunderstorm is forming over my head" (Andersen, 2003, p. 97). He was correct: Cézanne called the trip off. Disavowing his growing doubt about the status of their friendship, Zola couches his concerns in catastrophic terms:

[25 June 1860]

no devil hides behind our friendship, planning to drag us into the abyss … I find in myself only love towards you. Like the shipwrecked sailor who clings to a plank floating in water, I cling to you, my old Paul … Several times I was afraid of losing you. Now this seems impossible. We know each other too well ever to separate.

(p. 129)

It would be another year before Zola could coax Cézanne to come to Paris with letters such as the following, which organizes their imagined future lives:

[3 March 1861]

Here is how you could organize your time. From six to eleven you'll go to an atelier and paint from a live model; you'll have lunch, then from midday till four, you'll copy the masterpiece of your choice, either in the Louvre or in the Luxembourg. That will make nine hours of work; I think that's enough … that leaves us all evening free, and we can do whatever we like, without impinging at all on our studies.

(p. 105) [End Page 76]

Ecstatic, Zola wrote to Baille after his prodigal friend finally arrived in Paris.

[22 April 1861]

I've seen Paul!!! I've seen Paul, do you understand that, you; do you understand the full melody of those three words? He came this morning, Sunday … I opened my door trembling with joy and we embraced hard … in a month we should be able to take rooms together.

(p. 106)

IV. "The old, old, dream": The First Thursday Dinner

L'Œuvre is punctuated at regular intervals by three of the "Thursday dinners" that Pierre Sandoz regularly holds for his band of brothers and that mirror the famous "Thursday salons" via which Zola cultivated a network of influential people in the arts and letters. Examined in turn, the three Thursday dinners can be understood as distinct junctures in Pierre's evolving relationship to Claude Lantier. The first is notable for Zola's idealized self-portrait as the impossibly good-natured author-host Pierre, who enjoys a heady feeling of absolute fraternité with Claude and their friends—a likely glimpse of the reunion of les inseperables that Zola had longed for:

It was just another of Sandoz's pleasant gatherings. Even at his poorest he had always a bite to share with friends … he liked to be one of a band, all good friends, all living for the same ideals … as yet nothing had come between them, neither their fundamental disparities, which they had not yet realized, nor the spirit of rivalry which was one day to set them at variance … Bubbling over with youth and brotherly devotion, they were launched again into the old, old dream of banding together to conquer the earth … Sandoz himself was happy, beaming with pleasure at seeing his friends so united, "all in the same shirt" … warmed by his day of good fellowship … [Claude] felt he could paint now (1886/1993, pp. 85–93) [End Page 77]

Pierre's naïve dream of a model community of artists un-polluted by "fundamental disparities" or a "spirit of rivalry" was also Zola's, but, as their correspondence indicates, Cézanne did not reciprocate his continued and desperate need for companionship. In the first Thursday dinner, Zola reverses this "fundamental disparity": only with Pierre's "good fellowship" will the troubled Claude "feel he could paint." The almost ridiculously decent Pierre's repetitive negation of the competition that eventually "set them at variance" suggests that Zola feared that his own aggression—the impending "thunderstorm"—would jeopardize the chances of a future utopia. Projected onto Cézanne, even simple differences seem dangerous to Zola, who in his letters indicates how intolerant of any conflict he imagines their alliance: "Are we not already linked? Don't we have the same thoughts?" (Andersen, 2003, p. 132).

[26 April 1860]

I fear that you will become angry with me, that my thoughts are in conflict with yours and that, therefore, our friendship might suffer … I am so afraid of the lightest cloud between us. Tell me, tell me constantly that you accept my ideas as those of a friend … that I am for you just the same, the gay companion, the dreamer, the friend who happily stretches out in the grass next to you.

Yet after two difficult years of separation, Zola was not "just the same"; nor was Cézanne. Life pressed in, and the anxious future loomed. Unsurprisingly, their reunion did not go as planned. Two months after Cézanne came to Paris, Zola wrote Baille:

[10 June 1861]

I rarely see Cézanne. Hélas! It's not like Aix any more, when we were eighteen, and free and without a care about the future … In the morning Paul goes to the [Académie] Suisse and I stay and write in my room … Sometimes at midday I go to his room and he works on my portrait. Then he goes to draw for the rest of the afternoon … he has supper, goes to bed early, and I see him no more. [End Page 78] Is this what I'd hoped for? Paul is still that excellent capricious youth I knew in college … no sooner had he got there than he was talking of going back to Aix … I hold my tongue and rein in my logic. Convincing Cézanne of something is like persuading the towers of Notre Dame to execute a quadrille.

Nor was Paris what Cézanne had hoped for. He tried twice but failed to gain acceptance to the École des Beaux-Arts, and settled for the life-drawing classes at the less prestigious Académie Suisse. Moreover, Zola's company failed to alleviate the melancholy that had set in after Zola left Aix. As Cézanne explained to a friend in June 1861, "I thought that when I left Aix I'd leave the ennui that pursues me far behind. All I've done is swap places and the ennui has followed me" (p. 107). Zola's disappointment with his mercurial, irritable friend turned into resignation, then bitterness. After four months with Cézanne, he described to Baille in an undated letter of August 1861:

[in conversation] our recollections loom large; as for the future, we touch lightly on it, in passing, either to wish for our complete reunion [of les inseperables] or to pose for ourselves the terrible question of success … At times, he sings an idiotic refrain for hours on end; then I openly declare my preference for [his] lectures on the economy … "I'm leaving tomorrow," he announced calmly. "And my portrait?" "I've just torn it up … as it went from bad to worse" … If he doesn't leave this week, he'll leave the week after … Paul may have the genius of a great painter; he will never have the genius to become one. The slightest obstacle sends him into despair. (emphasis added)

(pp. 110–111)

As Zola predicted, in a few weeks Cézanne did return to Aix. Although he would henceforth travel back and forth between Paris and the Midi, Cézanne would spend less time in Paris with Zola than with others, especially Camille Pissarro, thereby dashing Zola's dream of eternal brotherhood. This denouement affected Zola's previously generous estimation of his friend: once having the "genius of a great painter," now [End Page 79] Cézanne lacked "the genius to become one." Spurning his friend's talent likely defended against feeling spurned by his friend; yet with these few words, he prefigured the events of the next decades. Zola could not hold an admiring mirror to Cézanne unless he could control him (Rosenfeld, 1971).

In 1862, Zola relented and gave in to the demands of life: abandoning poetry, he took a job at Hachette Publishing, and in a matter of months propelled himself to the head of the publicity department. He also discovered a new way to pay the bills. Applying the tricks of the trade that he learned at Hachette, he reinvented himself as a journalist, churning out quantities of hack criticism for the dailies. Through Cézanne, Zola had privileged access to the art world and its ideas: appropriating their friends' theories, he branded himself a strident agent provocateur, and in no time gained considerable notoriety for pillorying the general state of cultural affairs, calling for revolution in art, and shouldering valiantly the cause of Impressionism, soon to be the very epicenter of the avant-garde.

Unlike Zola's would-be equivalent Pierre Sandoz, the secondary characters of L'Œuvre are not as scrubbed of their unsavory aspects. In agreement with Sigmund Freud, who noted "the inclination of the modern writer to split up his ego, by self-observation, into many part-egos … to personify the conflicting currents of his own mental life" (1908[1907], p. 150), L'Œuvre's secondary characters can be approached as containers of repudiated, split-off parts of their author (see Tutter, 2011). For example, Claude Lantier's unschooled lover Christine nevertheless "began to repeat artists' expressions she had heard Claude use, and say things like 'vigorous,' 'luminous,' or 'well put together"" (1886/1993, p. 118). Such affectations recall Zola's own, if disavowed, capacity for adept mimicry:

[26 April 1860]

When I who can only just distinguish black from white, look at a painting … all I can say is whether I like the subject, whether the whole makes me dream of something beautiful and great … nothing appears to me more pitiful than the exclamations of so-called connoisseurs who, having got hold of some technical terms in the studios, spout them with the self assurance of parrots.

These withering comments made to Cézanne suggest that shame motivated the quarantine of Zola's amateurish art criticism within Christine, a secondary character.

Owing to Zola's sheer audacity and energetic agitation on their behalf, the Impressionists anointed him their champion, despite his lay status: as evidence, he is included in Henri Fantin-Latour's homage to the movement, a group portrait that hung in the Salon of 1870 (Fig. 1). Cézanne is absent from its assembled artists; he never accepted their dogma, and unlike Zola, he abstained from their loud gatherings at the Café Guerbois. But for Zola, the Impressionists were radical enough to admire and their art attractive enough to appreciate.

It proved more difficult for Zola to like, let alone idealize, Cézanne's art. Darkly muscular, aggressively unbeautiful, and often gruesome and violent in subject, Cézanne's cartoonish early paintings are quite the antithesis of standard Impressionist fare. Zola's growing doubt is barely veiled in the guise of Pierre, whose feeble attempt at tact with Claude comes across as patronizing: "Oh look, you're altering the type of the woman! … Coming on quite well, that woman … But heavens! It's all going to take a lot of work, you know'" (1886/1993, p. 25). Like Christine, Zola "had been brought up to admire another, gentler, art" (p. 117). He preferred the high style and sentimental polish of academic painters such as August Toulmouche and Ary Sheffer, and likely drew upon his own response to Cézanne's art to describe Christine's appalled reaction to "the vehemence, the uncouthness" of Claude's. His "unbridled painting" also "jolted" the third inseperable, Louis Dubuche: "it was only his old friendship with Claude that made him keep his criticism to himself" (p. 46). Dubuche's distaste for Claude's art anticipates a growing distance: "their old friendliness had been cooler of late … Dubuche had other ambitions now, and Claude was not unaware of a certain obtuseness, not to say hostility, in his attitude" (p. 57).

Zola likewise also became disenchanted with Cézanne the man, who was as much an outsider in Paris as Zola had been in Provence. Cézanne, who dressed like an Aixoise peasant, appeared uncouth and roughshod next to gentlemen as dashing as Claude Monet and as elegant as Edgar Degas. Zola coveted Édouard Manet's sartorial finery, which Cézanne [End Page 81] mocked: if Zola in his journalism and his fiction purported to be allied with the common man, in life he aspired more to Manet's dandy—the wealthy flâneur, who, as Zola admiringly describes, "had an innate need for refinement and elegance" and "found secret pleasure in the perfume and refinement of soirees" (1960, pp. 116–117).

Figure 1. Henri Fantin-Latour, Un atelier aux Batignolles, 1870. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Exhibited in the Salon of 1870. Zola (fourth from right) joins a gathering of well-dressed Impressionists, including Édouard Manet at the easel, the hatted Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet at right. This painting enjoyed the nickname "Jesus Christ and His Apostles."
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Figure 1.

Henri Fantin-Latour, Un atelier aux Batignolles, 1870. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Exhibited in the Salon of 1870. Zola (fourth from right) joins a gathering of well-dressed Impressionists, including Édouard Manet at the easel, the hatted Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Claude Monet at right. This painting enjoyed the nickname "Jesus Christ and His Apostles."

The glamorous trappings of the upper class would soon be within Zola's reach. While journalism was never his calling, he shrewdly parlayed his notorious succès de scandales into a never-ending string of sensationalistic best sellers—he who once alerted Cézanne "to another peril: commercial art" (Andersen, 2003, p. 106). That Cézanne did not share Zola's desire for the accessories of wealth (or the social aspirations they signified) opened up another unwelcome space between them, yet another sign that they were not "just the same."

Nevertheless, knowing his friend's attitude toward the sale bourgeois, Zola tried to repudiate his social strivings when [End Page 82] around him. During the Paris Commune of 1871, he escaped to Bordeaux, where he excitedly reported to Cézanne, who having dodged the draft, was waiting out the war in the provinces:

[4 July 1871]

For two months I lived in the furnace: cannon fire day and night, and towards the end shells flying over my head in the garden … with the help of a Prussian passport I fled and went to Bonnières to spend the worst days there … Paris is reborn … I do feel a little sorry to see that all the imbeciles aren't dead, but I console myself with the thought that none of us has gone. We can resume the fight … write to me without fear.

This revolutionary rhetoric was hardly persuasive, coming from an avid member of la nouvelle bourgeoisie who had no more intention to "fight" than Cézanne. Amused, Cézanne reported to the collector and dealer Ambroise Vollard in an undated letter from 1871:

Poor Zola! He would have been the first to be sorry if all the 'imbeciles were dead' … he told me that he was going to dine with a big cheese to who he'd been introduced by Monsieur Frantz Jourdain … I couldn't help saying, if all the imbeciles were gone, you'd be forced to eat the rest of your casserole at home, tête-à-tête with your bourgeois! … our old friend looked none too happy … Surely … one can have a little joke when one has worn out our trousers on the same schoolbench.

(p. 144)

Unsurprisingly, Zola did not take well to Cézanne's "little joke." He was mindful enough of his readiness to trade integrity for financial gain to expunge this aspect from Pierre, who achieves success through hard work alone, with no need for deceit, opportunism, sensationalism, or social parasitism—which Zola reserves for others, most notably Fagerolles and the journalist Jory. [End Page 83]

V. Chez Pierre: The Second Thursday Dinner

Newly married and domesticated, Pierre Sandoz's modest home puts Claude Lantier's haphazard lodgings to shame. Described with no little pseudo-modesty, Chez Pierre is a "little house, certainly, but a hive of industry, full of hope for the future … and already bright with the first indications of luxury and comfort" (1886/1993, p. 214). Madame Sandoz "ran her household according to good middle-class standards" (pp. 214–221); a most enviable housewife (especially for an Aixoise), she had "learnt to make bouillabaisse to perfection" (p. 183). The second Thursday dinner, however, did not go so well:

Claude felt as if he was awakening from a dream … they had changed; Mahoudeau, soured by poverty, Jory keener than ever on self-advancement … Fagerolles … seemed to exude coldness, in spite of his exaggerated cordiality … he could see they were really strangers to one another … [Claude] wondered whether they were really gone forever, those hectic, friendly meetings … before anything had come between them and none had desired to monopolize all the glory. Today, the battle was on … The rift was there, though barely visible at yet, which had cracked apart the old sworn friendships … [Pierre] was oblivious to all this and still saw the gang as it had been in the Rue d'Enfer days, shoulder to shoulder, marching to conquest. Why should a good thing ever be altered?

(pp. 219–225).

This passage is notable for Pierre's "oblivious" disavowal of any negative feelings toward—or in—his friends. He is immune to being "soured by poverty," polluted by "keen self-advancement," or driven to "monopolize all the glory"—again, qualities readily recognizable in Zola, yet residing not in Pierre, but in other characters.

In the summer of 1878, Zola purchased a country house in Médan, a suburb of Paris, which he cluttered with the accoutrements of the landed gentry: heavy Renaissance Revival furniture, tapestries, and more than one set of armor. He also added two large towers on either side of the villa—one housing [End Page 84] the grandest room, his new, double-height study—such that it now resembled a medieval château. Cézanne was an uncomfortable guest amid this ostentation. In the meantime, Zola was busy hosting the literary elite, having long exchanged his radical Impressionist friends for members of the literary intelligentsia, a circle of established writers that convened regularly in Médan.

As Zola's star rose, Cézanne's was less blessed. His career stalled: he had scarce sales and was routinely barred from exhibiting in the annual Salon.5 Although his reputation as an innovator had begun to spread, he failed in the decade from 1877 to 1887 to exhibit in Paris at all. While Zola was kitting out his "castle" (Cézanne's word, Danchev, 2013, p. 197), Cézanne père halved his son's monthly allowance after discovering the fact of his clandestine mistress and illegitimate child. The differences in their situations eventually caused a strain. Whereas Cézanne's letters from the 1870s—none of Zola's have been located—were warm, affectionate, and humorous, a distinct cooling is evident in the 1880s, during which Cézanne repeatedly appealed to Zola—by now a wealthy man—for financial help. In one letter, Cézanne reports that he cannot afford coal for heat; in another, he asks Zola to use both sides of the paper, as a letter had arrived with twenty-five centimes due. A more pointed letter from the "wretched painter who has never been able to do anything" contains more than a hint of contempt: he enjoys Zola's new novel, Une page d'amour—observing that "the development of the plot is handled with tremendous skill"—but also notes:

[8 May 1878]

it is truly a pity that a work of art isn't appreciated more and that in order to attract the public there have to be some exaggerated effects, which are not wholly appropriate, although of course they don't harm it.

Cézanne's implicit proposition is that Zola has struck a Faustian bargain, compromising his art in exchange for commercial success. Having initially couched this tactic as necessary "to attract the public," the last bit of undoing ("of course they don't harm it") is gratuitous. [End Page 85]

For his part, Zola regularly presented Cézanne with the annual (and sometimes biannual) gift of his latest work, in lieu of the more personal news asked from him: "when you can, if you can tell me about the artistic and literary scene you would gladden my heart. In that way I will be even further from the provinces and nearer to Paris" (p. 172). Cézanne regularly thanked his now celebrated friend, exhibiting in his final replies a range of ironic humility, polite cordiality, and bitter sentiment:

[24 May 1883]

I'm saying nothing about you, because I know nothing at all, except that when I buy Le Figaro I sometimes light upon a few facts about men I know … I did learn that Gaut [an author they used to mock] rates your last novel [Au Bonheur des dames] very highly (but no doubt you know that). As for me, I liked it very much, but my assessment is hardly literary.

(p. 229)

[23 February 1884]

I received the book you were kind enough to send me, La joie de vivre … thank you very much for sending it, and for not forgetting me when I'm so far away.

(p. 231)

[11 March 1885]

I received the book you were kind enough to send me [Germinal] … I wish you good health, considering that you lack for nothing else

(p. 232)

Yet a powerful sentiment still bound Cézanne to Zola, and survived their growing distance. In an unguarded, if embarrassed, letter to Paul Alexis, an old mutual friend who had sent him a copy of his book—the worshipful Émile Zola, notes d'un ami—Cézanne writes:

[15 February 1882]

I want to thank you most warmly for the good feelings you give me in recalling times gone by. What more can I say. I shan't be telling you anything new if I say what marvelous stuff there is in the beautiful verses of he [Zola] who wants very much to continue to be our friend. But [End Page 86] you know how much it means to me. Don't tell him. He would say that I'm soft in the head. This is between us and not for broadcast (p. 221)

If one hypothesizes that Cézanne cut off his correspondence with Zola in response not to L'Œuvre but to a later book, one needs to consider La Terre. Reminiscent of Cézanne's loss of the Jas de Bouffan, which he and his sisters had to sell after their father's death, La Terre concerns three children of a vulgar Provençal peasant family in brutal competitive conflict over their father's inheritance. It is a fight to the death.

VI. "The hundred and one touches of color": The Third Thursday Dinner

At the close of L'Œuvre, Pierre Sandoz is the only friend who is still loyal enough to see Claude Lantier. By now, Claude has descended into madness. In contrast, although Pierre's "books were selling, he was making money, [and] his flat in the Rue de Londres was nothing short of luxurious, he himself was still the same" (1886/1993, p. 320). As proof of his constancy, Pierre coaxes Claude into attending one last Thursday dinner at his grand residence.

Zola's lavish Parisian home on the Rue de Bruxelles stands in sharp contrast to the austere atelier of Cézanne, who, like Claude, had "never craved for luxury as a background to his art" (p. 265), and, like L'Œuvre's master painter Bongrand:

made no concessions to the taste for sumptuous hangings and valuable curios which was beginning to prevail among the younger painters. His was the plain, bare studio of the older school, with nothing on the walls except the master's own paintings.

(p. 203)

As if to temper his pride in his luxury, the third Thursday dinner passages are replete with jarring notes of contrived informality that only serve to exaggerate the extravagance of Pierre's affair, which Zola details approvingly and wholly without irony. As an example, to complement the exotic menu, Pierre—who [End Page 87] like Zola had become quite the gourmet, for whom "sourcing delicacies" was "almost an obsession" (Danchev, 2012, p. 263)—offers his guests "simply some decanters of vintage Claret, Chambertin with the roast and sparkling Moselle as a change from the same old Champagne with the dessert" (1886/1993, p. 377). Agitated and deranged, Claude needs no change from the tedium of plenty, and one winces at the cruelty of subjecting him to Pierre's noblesse oblige and his home, brimming with material wealth:

an amazing array of antiques; furniture, tapestries, ornaments, and brica-brac of all periods from all over the world … To Sandoz it meant satisfying the desires of his youth, realizing all the romantic ambitions he had gleaned from his early reading … this notoriously modern writer lived in the now old-fashioned medieval setting which had been his ideal when he was fifteen … his drawing room, lit by two old Delft lamps, produced a remarkable all-over effect of soft, warm coloring, compounded of … the yellowing inlays of the Dutch and Italian cabinets, the delicately blended tints in the Oriental hangings, and the hundred and one touches of color from the ivories, china, and enamels, all softened by the passage of time, contrasting with the neutral, deep red paper on the walls.

(p. 377)

This exercise in ekphratic excess (and this is only an excerpt) encourages the hypothesis that Zola managed the loss of his idealized friend via identification: by painting pictures with words. The emphasis on light and the "hundred and one touches of color" in this passage are particularly evocative of Cézanne, famous for his preoccupation with light, and for constructing form from the patches of color known as tache. Yet, at the same time Zola's florid word pictures are also fetishistic, denying loss by reconstituting the "medieval setting" that "had been [Pierre's] ideal when he was fifteen"; given his turreted castle in Médan, it seems this was Zola's fantasy, too. Thus does Zola, via his fiction, simultaneously mourn loss and elude it. The fictional Pierre's process of mourning is quite different, however, moving swiftly from denial to the acute recognition [End Page 88] of loss. Whereas earlier he was strangely oblivious of the disintegrating brotherhood, at the third Thursday dinner, he finally confronts it: "with indignation, [Pierre] sat still and listened to all the vehemence and rancor … sweeping away his cherished dream of eternal friendship" (p. 388).

Despite their magnificent stage set, the characters were not cooperating: "the talk had grown so sour that the delicacies were passing unnoticed, much to the hostess's sorrow and her husband's … Hadn't they all started life together? Weren't they all going to have their share in the final victory?" (p. 385). In the final coup de grâce, Pierre and Claude overhear the others blame Claude for their failures:

"We'd only got to be known as friends of Claude's for every door to be slammed in our faces!" … Claude, the great painter who missed the mark … what had he done for them? Nothing … Their only hope of success lay in breaking with him, that was clear … like brothers since their early youth, they were now suddenly become strangers and enemies … deliberately breaking the last bonds that had held them together.

(p. 388)

The implication—that Zola's "only hope" had correspondingly lain in his "breaking with" Cézanne—may represent an intended enactment, his own "deliberate breaking of the last bonds."

The trouble between Claude and Pierre is more occult. Pierre had just published a book, "one of those resounding successes which make any man proof against the attacks of his adversaries":

"I finished your book last night, Pierre," Claude said to Sandoz … "A damned fine piece of work, old fellow! … I've been trying to paint all day, but couldn't do a stroke. It's a good job I can't be jealous of an author; if I could, you'd lead me a hell of a dance!"

(pp. 378–323)

And yet a painter can be jealous of an author, as Pierre himself reminds Claude: "maybe you envy me because I'm beginning to do good business, as the bourgeois say;" he [End Page 89] then complains how hard he works (p. 302). But so, too, can an author be jealous of a painter, and from jealousy can animosity and attack arise, and Pierre's "resounding success" of a book does seem to have been a low blow, given Claude's subsequent inability to paint ("couldn't do a stroke"!). Perhaps Zola imagined that he had similarly injured Cézanne with his recent "resounding success"—his chef d'oeuvre, the 1885 Germinal—or when a year before that, he proclaimed Manet, and not Cézanne, as Courbet's heir, the new "forerunner" of art.

VII. "For the sake of truth"

In the 1860s, fairly well established artists such as Manet and Monet might have derived some benefit from Zola's strenuous endorsement, but they in no way depended on it. While Cézanne's long-standing lack of commercial success and public recognition cannot be blamed on insufficient support in print, it is striking how completely Zola distanced himself from the artist for whom his endorsement might have actually made a difference. Thus while Zola in a prolix foreword dedicates the 1866 Mon Salon, a collection of art criticism that borrows heavily on Cézanne's uncredited comments, to "mon ami, Paul Cézanne," Cézanne's art merits no mention whatsoever in its text. In contrast, Zola unreservedly championed others, especially Manet, who returned the honor with the baronial portrait of Zola that hung in the Salon of 1868 (Fig. 2). Zola sits at his desk, surrounded by art books, a print of Manet's Olympia (her gaze dutifully redirected toward Zola), and his adulatory 1867 pamphlet on Manet, wherein he defends the painter with unsurpassed piety:

A young painter … has begun to paint in a way which is contrary to the sacred rules taught in schools. Thus, he has produced original works, strong and bitter in flavor, which have offended the eyes of people accustomed to other points of view … I picture myself in the middle of a road where I meet a gang of young ruffians who are throwing bricks at Édouard Manet … I go up to the young [End Page 90] ruffians and question them; I question the police, I even question Édouard Manet himself … I go home and prepare, for the sake of truth, official evidence which you are about to read. Obviously, I have only one object in mind … I ask them not only to criticize Édouard Manet fairly but also all original artists … my aim is not only to have one man accepted, but to have all art accepted.

Figure 2. Édouard Manet, Émile Zola, 1868, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
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Figure 2.

Édouard Manet, Émile Zola, 1868, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

[End Page 91]

And yet this vociferous defender of "all art" and above all "original art" agitated not at all on behalf of Cézanne's art that was, if nothing else, "contrary to the sacred rules taught in schools." Nor did he confront the "ruffians throwing bricks" when Cézanne's two defiant Salon entries were mocked in a widely distributed cartoon. Indeed, the best Zola ever had to say about Cézanne in print was to say that he "had the makings of a very great painter" (Danchev, 2012, p. 31, emphasis added).

Zola did not restage his abdication with Pierre Sandoz. Unlike Zola's silence around Cézanne's ridiculed Salon entries, Pierre vociferously defends Claude Lantier:"he turned pale and clenched his fists with rage. 'They jeered at Delacroix,' he cried, 'and they jeered at Courbet! Philistines, that's what they are! An enemy race of cruel, mindless executioners'" (1886/1993, p. 141). Here, Zola recycles his prior promotion of Manet, virtually paraphrasing his assertion that denying Manet a place in the Salon was tantamount to "veritable murder—an official assassination" (1867/1960, p. 126). But Manet's exclusion from the Salon was far less a "veritable murder" than Zola's exclusion of Cézanne from his critical advocacy.

It could be argued Zola's splicing into the narrative a version of his defense of Manet simply represents a literary liberty, rather than an attempt to avoid his actual failure to defend Cézanne. But Zola himself suggests otherwise. In what seems like a guilty admission of his journalistic abandonment of Cézanne, Claude's friends angrily confront the journalist Jory, reproaching him for withholding support for them in print: "Always saying you'd give us a hand up when you had a paper of your own … now you're the boss. But have you ever said a good word for either of us? Not you!" Their protest may voice what he imagined to be Cézanne's unspoken response to his Mon Salon: "in your last Salon report you never even mentioned our names" (1886/1993, p. 390).

No satisfactory explanation has yet been offered for Zola's abandonment of Cézanne in the press, which forms the silent backdrop of the unfolding deterioration of their relationship (see Lethbridge, 2016). One cannot cite journalistic integrity in Zola's refusing to promote art he did not like or understand, as he was hardly scrupulous in such matters.7 Rather, [End Page 92] Zola's desertion of Cézanne in the press was likely driven by multiple factors. It might have constituted, for example, payback for what Zola considered Cézanne's desertion—his failure to uniformly and admiringly mirror him and his betrayal of the shared dream of les inseperables réunis. Zola may have also felt Cézanne a professional, as well as social, liability whose endorsement would not in the end be in his own interest. Encouraging this conjecture is Fagerolles, an opportunistic painter whose success lay in deftly adapting and making more palatable Claude's radical technique, and who personifies the gift for self-promotion that Zola honed at Hachette. While Claude endured serial failures, Fagerolles

was gradually breaking away from the gang and launching himself on the boulevards where he assiduously frequented cafes, newspaper offices, and all the places where he could gain publicity or make useful contacts. It was deliberately and with the firm intention of building up his own personal success that he cultivated the notion that it was preferable to have nothing in common … with such hot-headed revolutionaries … [he was] full of scorn for these clumsy fools who persisted in their misguided stubbornness when it was really so easy to conquer the public.

(1886/1993, pp. 220–221)

At the end of L'Œuvre, Claude has failed in every attempt to gain public recognition. Although his uncompromising art is superior to that which the Salon favored ("thoroughly soaked in the train-oil of convention," p. 144), that venerable institution will not accept his last submission, although it is hailed by all a masterpiece: "this time, without the slightest doubt, there was prejudice, a deliberate attempt to stifle an original artist" (p. 234). Living in utter squalor, Claude must at last do what he long resisted and "stoop to producing commercial pictures" (p. 240)—the ultimate humiliation, the most hurtful denouement Zola could hand him, and, naturally, the one that does him in.8 Ironically, commercial writing was a degradation Zola willingly embraced during his years as a hack journalist—one that he arguably never gave up, his early ideal of sober realism [End Page 93] having long given way to lurid sensationalism. Indeed, Pierre discloses that "in the end," he "despises himself" for his books "being, in spite of my efforts, so incomplete, so untrue to life" (p. 362, emphasis added).

Unlike Claude, however, Cézanne remained true to his art. Certainly his father's support allowed this, but it may also be, and I suspect that Zola knew, that Cézanne would have quit art altogether rather than bend or force his vision into alignment with prevailing conventions. The stringent authenticity that others would later praise—Roger Fry singles out his "desperate sincerity" (1989, p. 26)—cost him dearly. Incapable of "the brilliant lie," he would for many years struggle mightily with despair and frustration. Caustic comments by his boyhood friend could not have helped: in an 1880 article in Le Voltaire, Zola states that the Impressionists "remain inferior to the attempted work, they stammer and cannot find the right words…They can be criticized for their personal impotence, but still, they are the true workmen of the century [ils restent inférieurs à l'oeuvre qu'ils tentent, its bégayent sans pouvoir trouver le mot … On peut leur reprocher leur impuissance personnelle, ils n'en sont pas moins les véritables ouvriers du siècle]" (Zola, 1880, June 18–22, n.p.). Unable to "find the right words" like the successful writer Zola, Cézanne and the others are "impotent," at best "true workmen."

But by the time L'Œuvre began serialization in 1885, Zola knew that even if he did not appreciate Cézanne's gift, he should. The "lone wolf of Aix" had become something of a legend, a hermetic artists' artist whose influence, while still underground, had become quietly palpable, even earth-shaking. For Zola, this made Cézanne's eventual success, reached by Hercules' hard road, the most admirable, and the most enviable, kind. And the unmistakable glint of genius in Cézanne's rare innovations—all the more clear once mainstream Impressionism lost its radical edge—posed at least as great a source of envy and resentment as his creative integrity. In L'Œuvre, Claude follows a similar course: at long last Christine recognizes his talent, which "she had gradually come to understand … she was beginning to have a certain awe-inspired feeling of respect for works which at one time she thought were abominable" (1886/1993, p. 274). The well-named master Bongrand tells [End Page 94] Claude that he's "founded a new school" (p. 147). Even the duplicitous Fagerolles must acknowledge Claude's talent, and admit that his own derivative work bears "the stamp of Claude's genius … in spite of all his cleverly calculated attempts to evade the obligation" (p. 222).

Zola was not similarly obliged; he had backed the wrong horse and could not claim with any credibility that he had known it all along. Moreover, he had long lost the idealizing attachment that might have allowed him to take pleasure and pride in Cézanne's achievement, rather than enviously resent it. Witness Christine, who having recognized Claude's paintings "as powerful, treated them as rivals who must be taken seriously. As her admiration grew, so did her rancor" (p. 274, emphasis added). Describing Claude's friends and their "hatred of unbridled originality, of the potentially successful rival, of invincible strength triumphant even in defeat," Zola might speak for himself (p. 322).

Even after Cézanne's 1895 breakthrough show in Vollard's Paris gallery that once and for all validated his stature, Zola refused to knowledge it. In his 1896 essay "Peinture," a withering comment on that year's Salon—and, meaningfully, his parting shot as an art critic—Zola strangely conflates Cézanne with his fictional counterpart: "I had grown up almost in the same cradle with my friend, my brother, Paul Cézanne, in whom only today can the brilliant talents [parties géniales] of a great aborted [grand avorté] painter be discovered" (1896, May 2, author's translation). Confronted with whatever goodness or greatness others saw in Cézanne, Zola is compelled to abort it.

Not so Cézanne's admirers. In a group portrait reminiscent of Fantin-Latour's rendering of Zola with the Impressionists, Vollard and members of the Nabi group gather to honor the master in Maurice Denis' Hommage à Cézanne (Fig. 3). Recalling Bongrand's comment to Claude, "you've founded a new school," in a letter of June 13, 1901, Denis thanks Cézanne for appreciating this gesture of gratitude:

Perhaps this will give you some idea of the position as a painter which you occupy in our time, of the admiration which you evoke and of the enlightened enthusiasm of a [End Page 95] group of young people to which I belong and who can rightly call themselves your pupils, as they owe to you everything which they know about painting. We shall never succeed in acknowledging this sufficiently. Believe me, Monsieur.

The days when it was Zola's portrait that hung in the Salon were past: his gritty attempts at realism had become old-fashioned compared to the new mysticism and interiority of the Symbolists. It was Cézanne's turn. His portrait—and, indirectly, his painting—finally gained admission to the establishment: Hommage à Cézanne (in which Denis copies a painting of Cézanne) was exhibited in the 1901 Salon.

Figure 3. Maurice Denis, Hommage à Cézanne, 1901. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Exhibited in the Salon of 1901. In the gallery of his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, steadying the easel, Cézanne, at left, faces his Compotier, verre et pommes (1879–80) on the easel, surrounded by admiring members of the Nabi group: red bearded Odile Redon to his left, Édouard Vuillard in a top hat, Denis to the left of Vollard, and the pipe-smoking Pierre Bonnard and his wife. Eclipsed by Cézanne, in the background hang canvases by Gauguin and Renoir.
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Figure 3.

Maurice Denis, Hommage à Cézanne, 1901. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Exhibited in the Salon of 1901. In the gallery of his dealer, Ambroise Vollard, steadying the easel, Cézanne, at left, faces his Compotier, verre et pommes (1879–80) on the easel, surrounded by admiring members of the Nabi group: red bearded Odile Redon to his left, Édouard Vuillard in a top hat, Denis to the left of Vollard, and the pipe-smoking Pierre Bonnard and his wife. Eclipsed by Cézanne, in the background hang canvases by Gauguin and Renoir.

Unlike Cézanne, who made the occasional joke or sarcastic aside to express his contempt for Zola's commercialism and [End Page 96] ostentation, and who later withdrew into silence, Zola, who strove to "live out loud," acted on his destructive impulses toward Cézanne: passively, via his journalistic neglect, and actively, in L'Œuvre, in which he symbolically kills him: Claude hangs himself in front of the "stillborn" masterpiece that had obsessed him for so many years. Such violence can be easily disavowed; after all, he is a mere fiction. Yet Zola well knew that, once planted, fictional identities can sink roots and take hold.9 There was precedent: the invented character Germain Rambert in Marius Roux's 1878 novel, The Substance and the Shadow [La proie et l'ombre], was, like Claude Lantier, widely presumed to "be" Cézanne, as would future other creations (Newton, 2007).

Thus Zola constructs an enticingly fictional Cézanne, embellishing every disappointing aspect of him, turning him into an embarrassing Provençal bumpkin—a misanthrope, a misogynist, a miscarried talent. Jeopardizing his future reception, what is clumsy becomes crude, what is provincial becomes barbarous, and what is mercurial becomes mad. When seen through the prism of Claude, Cézanne's art would seem "not only monstrous and hideous, but also quite beyond the pale of any acceptable truth, the work of a madman, in short" (1886/1993, p. 57). Zola thereby treated Cézanne precisely the way in which Zola accused others of treating Manet twenty years before, when he excoriated the deplorable critics who "turned Manet into a sort of Bohemian character, a rogue, a ridiculous bogey … the public has accepted the jokes and the caricatures as so much truth" (p. 65). L'Œuvre attempts what Zola himself terms a "veritable murder—an official assassination" (p. 126).

In her memoir, the notorious mistress of President Félix Faure, Marguerite Steinheil (1912), observes that Zola had "one little failing: he disliked talent in others" (p. 50). Through the character of Pierre, Zola hints that the seeds of his disowned envy of Cézanne's genius predated his friend's belated fame: Pierre confesses that "since their schooldays," he "considered himself inferior to Claude, who he looked to as one of the masters who would revolutionize the art of a whole epoch" (p. 297): "the man whose unbridled genius would leave the talents of all the rest of them far, far behind" (p. 343). Audible here are echoes of the dreams of glory Zola once shared with the man to whom he dedicated Mon Salon: "we affirmed that the [End Page 97] masters, the geniuses, are creators who each created a world from scratch, and we refuse the disciples … whose craft is to steal some bits of originality here and there" (1866, p. 5). Imagine what it might have meant for Zola to feel that Cézanne, not he, was on the winning side of the equation, given his awareness of the sensationalist nature of his work and the contribution of his self-promotion to his success.

One potential means to mitigate this disparity is to pose genius as a liability, thereby justifying Zola's own aesthetic compromise. I suggest that Zola does just this by presenting Claude as the innocent victim of a genius so rare as to make commercial success virtually impossible: "art such as this, so incomplete, so revolutionary, so provoking by its denial of all accepted conventions, would have been enough in itself to scare prospective buyers" (p. 240). Thus despite the fact that he believes Claude's rejected entry is "without its equal in the Salon," Fagerolles "could not help feeling profound contempt for a painter who, though so admirably gifted, set all Paris laughing as if he was the craziest of crazy daubers" (1886/1993,p. 142). Zola thereby transforms envy of a painter too original to be successful into pity for a painter too foolish to be successful. The tension thus trod—between the "admirably gifted" genius and the "unutterable fool" (p. 142)—courses throughout L'Œuvre, exposing the intolerance of his envious appreciation of Cézanne's radical originality, and his corresponding impulse to discount, debase, and destroy it.

Like Claude, Cézanne died painting. In 1906, he contracted pneumonia; he was caught in a rainstorm while working, as usual, sur la motif. One wonders whether the myth of Claude had also got to him, affecting his view of himself: among the many canvases he left behind is the largest of the great series of bathers, Les Grandes Baigneuses, which he compulsively worked and reworked from 1895 until his death, performing this part of Claude's last years in his own. Then again, he never saw his project as finished—in contrast to Zola, who apparently felt his lifework complete. In late life, Zola took up photography, and honored his literary achievements in a series of tableaux in which he variously juxtaposes stacks of his books, an honorific medal bearing his likeness, Manet's portrait of him, and childhood photographs that suggested his destiny as an author [End Page 98] suis generis (Émile-Zola & Massin, 1988). Recalling his dream of a "beautiful book" engraved in "gold letters," he in his own "still-lives" creates a photographic apotheosis of himself.

In the dedication of Mon Salon to Cézanne, Zola states: "In my view I see you as the pale young man in de Musset. You are all my youth; I find you mingled with each of my joys, with each of my sufferings" (Danchev, 2012, p. 35). The pale youth refers to the elusive child-ghost in de Musset's La Nuit de Décembre, who for the poet is "as like me as my brother born" (1908a, p. 336). Recalling Zola's early paternal loss, the mysterious alter-ego first appears to the poet as "beside my father's dying bed I knelt, and wept my state forlorn" (p. 338). In turn, these lines evoke Narcissus, a confusing twinned vision: "Art thou a dream or do I rave, / Or does the mirror my own shape give back?" (p. 343). Similarly, Cézanne "is mingled" with Zola's joys and sufferings, but, like Narcissus' reflection, he frustrates. Leaving behind the blissful mirroring conformity of their adolescence, the adult Cézanne refused to reciprocate Zola's need for mirroring sameness, departing from him through his choice of dress, mannerisms, associates, career strategies (or lack thereof), and way and place of living—and, I would argue, in his essential aims. Averring that the man behind the art "should remain obscure" (Danchev, 2012, p. 307), Cézanne lived for his art, and not "to cut a figure or seek a role" as an artist (p. 280). In contrast, Zola lived to not be obscure, famously stating in Mes Haines: Causeries Littéraires et Artistiques, "If you ask me what I am doing in this world, I, the artist, will reply: I come to live aloud" (1879/1992, p. 13). Unlike Cézanne, whose ambition was to create art, Zola's ambition was not to create art, but to be "I, the artist," an end to which art was more a means. Indeed, as his photographs of his honorific medal attest, his ultimate aim was to attain the iconic status enjoyed by Hugo and de Musset, the authors he idolized: the revered role of the cultural hero. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he achieved this status not with his fiction—to his tremendous chagrin, he was never elected to the Académie Française—but with his pivotal written defense of Alfred Dreyfus, "J'Accuse," which earned him the honor of a burial in the Pantheon, next to Victor Hugo

To be so honored may have been less of a goal than a reflection of an imagined birthright of which Zola felt robbed, [End Page 99] his father's death depriving him not only of the financial support that Cézanne enjoyed, but also, and arguably more importantly, the self-esteem, confidence, and strength that a father could lend his son. Zola loved Cézanne as long as he functioned as a mutually idealizing, mirroring object, one who provided essential paternal, narcissistic supplies—an idealized object from whom he could gain by identification. But once Cézanne shed that role and asserted himself as separate and outside his control, he became a rival (Rosenfeld, 1971)—a transition that brings into sharp focus the tension between generative, idealizing mirroring that promotes creativity and the competitive aggression that threatens it. As an object of vengeful aggression, Cézanne might have assumed for Zola the imago of the father that left him only debt, but Cézanne may have also been the recipient of other transferences—such as the Algerian servant boy who betrayed his trust, and even Aixen-Provence itself, the city that killed his father and stole his money. Zola could not forgive Cézanne for any of it.

It could be said that Zola's devastating disillusionment with Cézanne was predetermined—its anticipation suggested by a text, the poetry they inhaled as boys:

I have lost my strength and my life,And my friends and my gaiety;And almost lost the prideWhich made me believe in my genius

From de Musset's Tristesse (1908b, p. 17, author's translation), these lines adumbrate Zola's tenuous "belief" in his own "genius," as if at best faith-based. They also eerily foreshadow Zola's perpetual unhappiness and unrelieved grief at the separation of les inseparables, whose very name betrays the potential for betrayal.10 Deceiving himself, Zola never realized that Cézanne did not differentiate from him, so much as he differentiated from Cézanne—the man who once was "as like me as my brother born." For it was he, and not Cézanne, who had changed, and relinquished the youthful ideals to which they swore undying allegiance: the worship of the Provençal landscape, the abdication of social status, and the devotion to nothing other than friendship and art. [End Page 100]

L'Œuvre did not succeed in impeding Cézanne's artistic success. But if Cézanne escaped Claude's fate, he did not escape this revisionist version of himself. Zola did not achieve this crime, this soul murder, without a price. In the final scene of L'Œuvre, piles of bones smolder in the paupers' graveyard, disinterred and burned to make room for new coffins, including Claude Lantier's. Claude will be buried only temporarily. The never-ending cycle of burial and jumbled exhumation anticipates the repeated mutilation of Cézanne's public personage that L'Œuvre set into motion, his bones destined to be continually unearthed and admixed with other fictional bones, bones that never belonged in his coffin. At his grave, Pierre felt that in burying Claude, he was "burying his own youth, part of himself, the best part" (1886/1993, p. 361). Recall Zola's dedication of Mon Salon to Cézanne: "you are all my youth." With L'Œuvre, Zola buries his own youth, "the best part of himself," and mingles Cézanne's bones with his own. In burying Claude in the child's section of the graveyard, Zola preserves their twinned connection in its fused, finite, yet immortal youth.

Zola could not mourn Cézanne, but he created a better version of himself in the character Pierre, who could. Perhaps Zola could only mourn by proxy; perhaps Cézanne understood this. Mourning a lost youth and a lost love, L'Œuvre is at once apologia and apology for its "veritable murder"; precisely via its disavowal, it confesses its "brilliant lie."

Adele Tutter

Adele Tutter, M.D., Ph.D. is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University, and faculty, Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. Her interdisciplinary scholarship has been recognized with the CORST, Menninger, and Ticho Prizes, among others. She is the author of Dream House: An Intimate Portrait of the Philip Johnson Glass House (2015); the co-editor, with Léon Wurmser, of Grief and its Transcendence: Memory, Identity, Creativity (2016); and the editor of The Muse: Psychoanalytic Explorations of Creative Inspiration (2017). She sits on the editorial board of The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Psychoanalytic Inquiry, and American Imago. She is in private practice in Manhattan.


1. Excerpts from the letters of Cézanne and Zola are taken from the translations of Andersen (2003), Danchev (2012, 2013), and Rewald (Cézanne, 1995).

2. Zola adopted the nom de plume "Claude" for some of his first literary attempts, including his first novel, the scandalous 1865 La Confession de Claude which he explicitly patterned after de Musset's La confession d'un enfant du siècle.

3. Soon after its discovery the letter was sold at auction for 27,500 EUR (

4. For biographical and historical data in this essay I draw primarily on the scholarship of Andersen (2003), Brown (1995), Danchev (2012, 2013), Gowing (1988), Pissarro (2006), Rewald (1986), and Schiff (1984).

5. Exhibiting in the Salon, and preferably winning a medal, was for artists in Paris essentially a prerequisite to establishing a market for their work. During the 1860s some of the Impressionists, such as Manet and Monet, occasionally passed the jury, but the Salon more routinely shunned new trends in favor of canvases hewing to the prevailing sentimental academic style typified by Adolphe Bougereau; hence the moniker le Salon de Bougereau. [End Page 101]

6. See Danchev (2012) for an analysis of the contempt for Zola's amateurism subtly encoded in his portrait by Manet.

7. For example, Zola published what he and his friend Marius Roux claimed to be newly discovered earliest poems by Baudelaire; they were actually written by their friend, Paul Alexis. After their publication, the ruse was exposed, gaining Zola and Roux much press.

8. Another possible humiliation in Zola's view would be the son that the (as yet childless) Zola gives Claude: a developmentally delayed boy with a hideously swollen head, who eventually dies (Cézanne had only one child, a son, Paul).

9. The suggestive, subversive power of fiction is a prominent subtext of his novel Une page d'amour (Zola, 1878/2015); for example, the character Madame Deberle engages in an illicit affair after staging Caprice, a play by de Musset about just that. I explore this topic further in "Sex, Text, Ur-text: Freud's Dora and the Erotics of Knowing," manuscript under submission.

10. J'ai perdu ma force et ma vie,/Et mes amis et ma gaieté;/J'ai perdu jusqu'à la fierté/Qui faisait croire à mon genie.


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