The Masterpiece (L’Oeuvre) is the fourteenth novel in Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon- Macquart series, and it is the most autobiographical. The Rougon-Macquart series was planned in 1868 and written over the course of the next twenty-five years, the series was intended to be a “natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire” with the family in question being split into two branches–the Rougons (wealthier, upper class and supposedly more respectable) and the lower born Macquarts. The family line is tainted with madness, a relentless quest for wealth, obsession, and drunkenness. While Zola seems to leave the idea of hereditary at the door for The Masterpiece, actually the taint is still to be found in the protagonist’s single-minded drive to self-destruction.
Set in the 1860s and 1870s, The Masterpiece is the story of artist Claude Lantier. To place Claude in the Rougon-Macquart family, he is the brother of Etienne Lantier (Germinal), half brother to Nana and the son of the laundress, Gervaise (L’Assommoir). Claude appears as a small boy in L’Assommoir, and later in that novel, he’s unofficially adopted by an elderly art dealer from Plassans. Claude then makes an appearance as a young artist in The Belly of Paris. Just as Germinal explored the lives of French miners, The Masterpiece explores the lives of a group of French artists. But while Zola went to his grave admired by grateful miners who never forgot that this writer championed their plight, The Masterpiece costs Zola friendships.
Zola grew up with artist Paul Cezanne in the town of Aix-de-Provence and according to the book’s introduction, the character of Claude Lantier is thought to be an “amalgram of Cezanne, Manet…and Monet.” After the publication of The Masterpiece, Cezanne never spoke to Zola again. But Cezanne wasn’t the only artist upset with Zola. According to the book’s introduction Claude Monet was “troubled and uneasy,” and even organized “a dinner of protest” for like-minded artists to attend and share their collective disgruntlement.
Why were they so upset?
The Masterpiece is the story of the artist Claude Lantier and his circle of friends. Claude, Pierre Sandoz (a thinly-disguised Zola) and Louis Dubuche are known as “the three inseparables” back in Plassans. While Claude dreams of becoming a famous artist, Pierre has literary ambitions, and Louis, the son of a baker, is enrolled in an architecture course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Claude lives on a meagre inheritance, Pierre earns money from a menial job and Louis does the occasional odd job for architects he meets. Once in Paris, these young men mingle in the bohemian artistic set, and throughout the course of the novel, the plot not only follows the fortunes of these three characters but also various artists in their circle as they seek fame. The possession of true talent is no indicator of future success. Some artists succeed and others trade talent for regular meals.
The story begins with a meeting between Claude and a young girl named Christine during a rain storm. Over time a relationship develops between them, and Christine even agrees to model for Claude. As an artist, Claude is a nonconformist and he much prefers to paint what he terms “Open Air.” Unfortunately the French Art world is controlled by the Academie des Beaux Arts and its annual Salon. The conservative judges of the Academie des Beaux Arts dictate the artistic taste of the age, so not being accepted for the Salon is a major blow to an artist’s career, and so conversely, being accepted for the annual Salon and having one’s art displayed there is a goal of all artists.
While Claude admires Delacroix and Courbet as innovators who moved the art world forward, he considers most of those ‘accepted’ artists as hacks. He feels that the art world is ready to move on to “something else” and over the course of the novel, just what that “something else” consumes and eventually destroys him.
Some of the very first scenes of Claude at work predict his doom as a painter. He’s working on a painting he calls “Open Air” and the painting which is eventually exhibited at the Salon des Refuses (Exhibition of Rejects) becomes the laughing-stock of the exhibition. After this humiliation, Claude decides to live with Christine and together they move to Bennecourt in the country, far from Claude’s humiliation and the cruel judgment of the public.
Throughout the novel, Claude’s creative genius is torn between painting for himself and his ideals and the goal of being accepted by the Salon. He’s never happy with a painting and constantly tinkers with the canvas and newer versions are not usually an improvement. As the book continues, Claude’s projects become increasingly impractical as he tackles huge scenes and enormous canvases, but his discontent with the finished project usually leads to the painting’s violent destruction.
The novel follows Claude’s pitiful decline and decent into madness. Art is seen as a harsh mistress as other characters in the novel self-destruct or abandon art in favour of more profitable endeavours. Dubuche, one of the three original “inseparables” is seen as a complete sellout. At first he imagines that he can create conformist-style buildings and then ‘move on’ to his own projects later. In reality, he marries for money, is harnessed in a loveless marriage and basically becomes the nursemaid for his two invalid children. Sculptor Mahoudeau and dilettante journalist Jory (another Plassans-ite) are caught up in a competitive menage-a-trois, and Jory turns out to be some sort of sex addict who is totally dominated by the rather revolting Mathilde.
As usual with Rougon-Macquart novels, Zola is the master of the vivid, Naturalist scene, and there are several examples in The Masterpiece–the crowd at the Salon des Refuses, the selection committee as they bicker about paintings, and then the scene as Claude searches for his painting on display at the Salon. The latter is an example of Zola at his very best, for in this scene, Zola captures the vulnerability of Claude as an artist. Claude attends the Salon and standing with his back to a wall full of Salon paintings, he experiences, vicariously, what it must be like to exhibit a painting that has the admiration of the crowd. And in this scene Zola simultaneously creates an amazingly alive tableaux, and he describes the crowd through Claude’s eyes almost as though Claude is surveying a painting. This gives us a brief glimpse into the mind of the artist–the artist rejected and the artist’s vision of his subject:
“The thought of all the admiration rising from the sea of rounded shoulders and craning necks so exasperated Claude that he felt he must see what sorts of faces go to make a triumph. So he worked his way round the fringes of the crowd until he was able to stand with his back to the picture. There he had the public in front of him, in the greyish-light that filtered through the sun-blind, leaving the centre of the room dim, while the bright sunlight that escaped round the edges of the blind fell sheer on the pictures on the walls, putting the warmth of sunshine into the gilt of the frames. As soon as he saw the faces, Claude recognized the people who had once laughed his own picture to scorn; at least, if it was not the very same people, it must have been their brothers, now in serious mood, enraptured, graced by their air of respectful attention. The malignant looks, the marks of overstrain and envy, drawn features, and bilious colouring he had noted earlier were all softened and relaxed in the communal enjoyment of a piece of amiable deception. Two very stout ladies he saw simply gaping in beatitude, and several old gentleman narrowing their eyes and trying to look wise. There was a husband quietly explaining the subject to his young wife, who kept tilting her chin with a very graceful movement of the neck. There was admiration on every face, though the expression varied; some looked blissful, others surprised or thoughtful or gay or even austere; many faces wore an unconscious smile, many heads were plainly swimming in ecstasy. The shiny black toppers were all tipped backwards, and the flowers on the women’s hats all drooped well down towards their shoulders, while all the faces, after a momentary halt, were pushed along and replaced by others in a never-ending stream, and all exactly the same.”
The Masterpiece is Zola’s homage to the Impressionists. The Impressionists may not have appreciated it at the time, but now in the 21st century, and at a safe distance, Zola’s novel is a vital record of their struggles and their sacrifices for the art they wanted to paint. Zola explores the relationship of the artist and his audience through the marvellous Salon scenes that record the great paintings ignored by an unappreciative crowd, the crushing blows of poverty suffered by those who struggle for art, and the parasitic hangers-on who feed from the artists’ failure. The novel is also a powerful testament to the nature of conformity and the seductive power of the Establishment. Zola’s greatest fault (and it’s not a literary fault), it’s a fault of ego, is his own thinly disguised portrait of himself as Sandoz– the urbane, saintly, humane and totally rational man amongst the frayed minds of many of the artists in the novel. I can see Zola proudly handing out copies of The Masterpiece and feeling flabbergasted when Cezanne, his lifelong friend dropped him. In its exploration of the vast, unfathomable space between the creative idea and its supreme execution, The Masterpiece succeeds, and it succeeds admirably.
My copy is published by Oxford World Classics and is translated by Thomas Walton, then the translation was revised and edited by Roger Pearson.