An essay on Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece.


As with many great works of literature that have found me quite coincidentally, I was relieved and excited to find this book. I looked forward to reading more of Zola, but I had a feeling this musing on nineteenth-century art would always be my favourite of his works. The apartment belonging to the main character in The Masterpiece, Claude, is described through the eyes of a young woman as having a ‘brutality’ to it, with its ‘terrifying pictures blazing on the walls’. Of course, this betrays the ideas of the time, portraying her as a woman who couldn’t possibly have an ounce of curiosity towards the mind of a great artist. She simply views his flat in a domestic fashion, looking for corners to nurture. After all, isn’t that her role? So, what’s the role he is rebelling from? Lacking a wife, Claude is utterly devoted to the practice of painting. If contemporary readers are made uneasy by the depictions of marriage as the virtuous route in life, then the readers of Zola’s artistic bachelor would have experienced an aversion to a life devoted to paintings, without reproduction or marriage in sight. We forget that the general inclination towards the institution of marriage is oppressive towards men, too. Even nowadays, in some circles, bachelors and bachelorettes are called ‘flaky’ or ‘commitment-phobic’ for fleeing the institutional requirements, when they in fact display loyalty towards other areas of life. Claude, for example, is devoted to art, and to him it requires a sort of accepted death of the self, handing over his heart and the usual life experiences to portraiture. The artist is utterly disinterested in the young woman who arrives on his doorstep one rainy night in Paris, until something happens that makes him feel ‘he were living a fairy tale’. Does he fall in love with her on the spot? No. He simply is drawn towards her aesthetically, as though viewing her under a microscope, ‘making a live thing of the crayon he held between his fingers’. He does not care for the girl. He simply wants to draw her. What a scandalous idea! This isn’t how the fairytale goes…

We soon realise that Claude is far from indecisive. He is steadily determined to make a living as an artist, while steadfast in his decision to starve ‘rather than commercialise himself by doing bourgeois portraits, trumpery religious subjects, painting awnings for restaurants or signboards for midwives’. This! This book is the kind I love, written by a writer who understands the yearnings of creativity, spurning widespread recognition for internal principles; the main character had been a rebel since adolescence, with his friend (secondary to his loyalty towards art is his sentimentality for friendship) who ‘never set foot in a cafe’; they liked literature more than the usual ‘fellows’ they called ‘stolid’. Women, also, were banned, in a kind of celibate stubbornness. He travelled from place to place in Paris, where he ‘led a rough-and-ready existence disdaining everything but painting’. Whereas Baldwin’s characters in Paris and New York often go mad due to turning their backs on art, Zola depicts an artist who turns quite mad going too far towards it. He is not interested in the young woman who arrives at her flat until he sees her beauty, and immediately this alleviates her prospects and social status as a ‘nice girl’, as like any true artist he is moved by matters of taste rather than financial opportunity. This is a wonderful, wonderful book that I absolutely implore you to read.

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