When I visited Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, the docent told the story of the childhood friendship between the artist and his friend, Émile Zola, as they both grew up in the beautiful countryside of Provence. After Zola left for Paris as a young man, Cézanne decided the countryside was the place for him, but they kept their friendship alive through letters. According to the tour guide, when Zola sent a copy of his book L’Oeuvre, known now as The Masterpiece, to his old friend, Cezanne recognized himself in the character of Claude Lantier, the failed artist from the provinces, rejected by the famous Salon, and never attaining the greatness he desired. Cezanne never spoke to his old friend again.
I had thought to find the book but had forgotten, until recently a local book club chose The Masterpiece to discuss. The electronic copy is available for free from Project Gutenberg, and I can finally satisfy my curiosity.
In researching the background for the book, I found Aruna D’Souza’s critical analysis in the essay Paul Cézanne, Claude Lantier, and Artistic Impotence:
“Much ink has been spilled on the extent to which Claude Lantier, protagonist of Zola’s L’Oeuvre, was modeled on Paul Cézanne. Scholars argue over whether the novel is a thinly-disguised and unflattering biography of a single artist, Cézanne; whether its protagonist, Claude Lantier, is an amalgam of a number of artists including Cézanne, Édouard Manet and Claude Monet; or whether it is a work of pure fiction. One must, of course, be careful in treating L’Oeuvre as anything but a powerful, inventive fabrication. And yet how tempting it is to read into Cézanne’s work and life some part of the character so compellingly described by Zola! Zola’s novel seems to provide one of the few real insights into this most inscrutable artist, not only in terms of the early biography of Lantier, for which Zola clearly mined his boyhood friendship with Baptistin Baille and Cézanne, but also in the kind of anguished frustration with which Lantier faces the very act of painting, in which we hear echoes of Cézanne’s own doubts. The “match” between Cézanne and Lantier seems too perfect, too potentially revealing, to discard wholesale.”
D’Souza’s reminder to accept the story as a work of fiction has me looking for a biography of Cézanne to compare the character to the artist. But first, Zola’s story – it promises to be a good one.