The Masterpiece by Émile Zola

Cezanne's Studio

Cezanne’s Studio


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.

28409I 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.

Returning to Provence in Books

9781400068173_p0_v1_s260x420Revisiting Provence through Susan Vreeland’s Lisette’s List has me hungry for the sweet melons and salty olives, yearning for the light captured by Cezanne, Pissarro, and Van Gogh, and missing the Mistral wind.   Vreeland’s descriptions are so accurate, she must have been there.  Like her other novels based on history and art – Luncheon of the Boating Party and Girl in Hyacinth Blue – Vreeland weaves fact with fiction.

GetAttachment-4.aspxThe tale is set in the town of Roussillon, where I recently visited the ochre hills, source of the famous pigment used in paintings. Cezanne, beloved son of Provence, whose paintings were inspired by Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the mountain overlooking Aix- en-Provence, is alive in the story, making my recent visit to his studio, seeing his paint- stained smock and replicas of his famous apples, take on GetAttachment-3.aspxmore meaning.   In Vreeland’s narrative, Pascal, the old grandfather and frame maker, recalls his friendship with the painter, who traded the paintings now hanging in Pascal’s old house, for frames.

The war intrudes on the idyll, as Vreeland uses the paintings hidden from the Nazis as the vehicle for the story’s dramatic arc as well as more travel through the French countryside. Chagall enters the narrative as the war takes its toll on the small towns in Provence, his hiding place from the Nazis, before he escapes with his wife to America.

Lisette’s list begins as she is trying to adjust to married life and the move from Paris to the country, but grows into a set of vows marking her independence and her determination to find the paintings and restore both the art and her life.  You may enjoy Lisette’s awakening to art through Vreeland’s romantic historical fiction, but her story was too slow and contrived for me.  The vivid descriptions of life in Provence were more satisfying than the long hunt for the missing paintings – maybe because I have just been there.

Although the book was recommended reading before I travelled, I had forgotten about it until a friend recently reminded me of Lisette. The book brought back the quiet beauty and simplicity of the provincial life, and reminded me of my own wonderful journey.

And, now I look forward to more memories of Provence, as I read Iris Murdoch’s Nuns and Soldiers, recommended by another friend who understands my yearning for more reminders of Southern France. Have you read it?

Related Review:   Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland