The Masterpiece, by Émile Zola


The Masterpiece is the tragic story of Claude Lantier, an ambitious and talented young artist who has come from the provinces to conquer Paris but is conquered instead by the flaws of his own genius. (from Goodreads)

Zola’s works could (and probably should) be read as a great historical document to better know and understand the lives of French people during the 1850s-1870s. He thoroughly researched those subjects he wasn’t familiar with, which gave a very veridical feeling to the stories he told.

In this case, I doubt he did any research at all. He lived the things he wrote, he was a first-hand witness. This story is believed to be a highly fictionalized account of Zola’s friendship with the painter Paul Cezanne (*). In this book, he represented what was the art world like at the time of the uprising of the impressionists, seen from their point of view. Even when the events are fictionalized, it’s very easy to pinpoint real-life references. The first of Claude’s paintings introduced to us is a clear reference to Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. His later obsession with the Île de la Cité reminded me of Monet’s painting and repainting of the Rouen Cathedral. And I’m pretty sure that each and every one of the bohemian characters could be easily recognized by Zola’s contemporary readers. He even portrayed himself in the character of Sandoz, Lantier’s best friend. Through Sandoz, Zola gives way to all of his ideas about writing, which makes of this book not only a depiction of the Impressionism movement, the bohemian life and the struggles of artistic creation,  but also a manifest of his life work and the Naturalism movement.

For me, as an art student who really enjoyed art history classes and readings, this book was… I don’t think I have words to describe it. I had read about the impressionists until exhaustion, but I think they never felt real, or alive, to me until this very moment. It also gave me a better view of what the Salons were like, what the merchants were like, and other things that usually were left behind in my classes. While reading it, it was like history was developing in front of my eyes.

If you consider yourself an artist, this is the book for you. If you’re interested in art history, and/or are fond of the Impressionism movement, this is the book for you. If you are a writer, this is the book for you. If you’re none of the above, I still recommend this work, because I think it is very good.

(*) “The story was perhaps too personal for Cezanne, whose correspondence with Zola ended immediately after the novel’s publication”. When I knew about this, it made me sad. I believe Cezanne was such a sensitive person, which is a trait that, I think, comes with great blessings, but also can bring huge sorrows.

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