As I read Zola’s The Masterpiece about the struggles of an innovative artist in 1880s Paris, I felt that Zola had lived that life. Although the central figure is the struggling artist, Claude, the next more prominent character is the writer, Sandoz. Claude’s experiments in artistic technique are not understood and are ridiculed; Sandoz (Zola) is also a victim.
His poor book! It was getting a fine old trouncing! Talk about butchery and massacre, he’d got the whole pack of critics at his heels, yelping and cursing him as if he’d committed murder most foul! It made him laugh, it even stimulated him, for he had the quiet determination of pursue the course he had set himself.
Claude is not full of quiet determination. Whereas Sandoz makes a plan for his series of related novels and proceeds diligently to produce them, Claude paints and destroys, paints and destroys. He seeks a single work, a masterpiece, to express his entire artistic vision. His first attempt has the significant title “Open Air” and is a light-filled contrast between a nude woman and a fully clad gentleman. Zola’s description of the picture suggests something very much like Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe.
Claude’s model for the nude is the beautiful Christine. They live together, have a child and eventually marry, while Claude paints version after version of what is to be his final masterpiece. He wants to show the heart of Paris with a glorious standing nude as its centerpiece. Christine continues to model; the picture does not work and Claude cruelly blames her.
“The colouring’s still splendid,” he went on, “but not the line. Not now…. The legs, oh, the legs are still all right; they’re usually the last thing to go in women…. But the belly and the breasts are certainly going to pieces. There, just take a look at yourself in the glass. Near the armpits now, you can see the way the flesh is starting to sag? Not very lovely, it it?”
It is not Christine who is deteriorating; it is Claude. The more he paints, the wilder and more improbable his picture becomes. His aspiration to create a single stunning masterpiece destroys him in the end.
This is only the second of Zola’s novels I have read but already I am impressed by his versatility. There is a central story — the returned political prisoner in The Belly of Paris and the artist-writer duo of this book — but there is also a host of other characters to play out the various possibilities of the situation. The Belly of Paris is the great food market, Les Halles, and Zola’s text is full of the tastes and smells of its fruit, fish and cheeses. In this book, we have word pictures of the colors and forms in the world the artists see and the works they create.