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: Cézanne and Zola


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
From the point of view of human interest, perhaps the most arresting painting in the current Cézanne exhibition if the large canvas of Paul Alexis Reading to Zola lent by Wildenstein and Company. Although not so perfectly realized as the Block Portrait of Vallier, which is, in the exact sense, one of the greatest portraits ever painted by Cézanne, it records an intimate side of the life of an artist whose existence seems to have been singularly devoid of intimate moments of any kind. It thus leads to a recollection of the long and close friendship between Cézanne and Zola, and to speculation concerning the uneasy course of that friendship.The portrait was done in 1869 or 1870—when Cézanne was seized with a desire to paint large works—during one of the periodic readings that took place at this time at Zola’s house in Paris. Zola, then beginning to achieve success in the literary world, lounges on a mat on the floor listening to Paul Alexis, who sits in a chair, his back to the spectator, as he reads to the novelist from a manuscript. The disposition of light and dark areas, with the clearest parts of Zola’s figure rendered by bare canvas, and the application of the pigment, reflect the vigorous and personal style of Cézanne’s portraits at this period; a style that recalls Manet without showing any precise influence of Manet. This painting, which lay forgotten in the attic of Zola’s house for many years, was not recognized as a work of Cézanne until 1927.It is one of several of Cézanne’s paintings that Zola kept around him, in his house at Médan and in Paris, long after the ultimate break between the two friends. They had met as schoolboys in Aix-en-Provence, had wandered the countryside together, confided their dearest ambitions to each other, read and written poetry to each other, and fired each other with dreams of success in the future. Zola was the first to start out on the long road to fame, and from the time he went to Paris in 1858 he cajoled, encouraged, and reproached Cézanne for his recurrent fits of apathy and enthusiasm in beginning his own career. Cézanne, who had to combat the antagonism of his father as well as his own indecisive temperament, procrastinated in a manner which was annoying and inexplicable to the forthright Zola. The first coolness between the two friends developed after Cézanne’s arrival in Paris in 1861, when the timid, sensitive, and vehement young man from the provinces found Pairs and its atmosphere so distasteful and discouraging that he returned to Aix in defeat a few months after his arrival. Zola, while understanding partially his friend’s doubts and problems, was disturbed by them. Convinced that Cézanne was a genius, he urged him to try again, and Cézanne, already sick of Aix and his father’s business, returned to Paris in 1862, his mind finally made up to become a painter.Zola was delighted, and the close bonds of youth were soon re-established. Following the exciting days of the Salon des Refusés in 1863, Zola made, through Cézanne, the acquaintance of the group of young and revolutionary painters whose cause he was to champion stoutly for many years. Of them all, he most admired Manet, whose aims with regard to art seemed to parallel his own with regard to literature. This admiration was made evident in everything he wrote in support of the new painting from 1866 to 1880, when he began to doubt his own convictions about the genius of the impressionist—or as he called them, naturalist—painters. It is notable that throughout this period he almost never championed his friend Cézanne in print. He mentioned him as a painter, in fact, only three times: in 1867, when he said that he “respected his strong and individual talent”; in 1880, when he remarked that Cézanne was still trying to “find himself”; and in 1896, when he called the artist an “abortive genius.”Zola’s failure to help Cézanne by coming out strongly for him is puzzling in view of his sincere affection for his friend. He had remarked early that while Cézanne had the genius of a painter he doubted that he would ever have the genius to become one. Zola’s own success had been fairly rapid after his first painfully difficult years in Paris, and it is possible that he did not want to associate himself too closely with one whom he was already beginning to consider a failure. He himself failed entirely to understand Cézanne’s passionate desire and titanic struggle to arrive at truth, and conceived of him as never really trying to achieve success. The repeated refusal of Cézanne’s work by the Salon hurt him and possibly also irritated him. Yet he said later, when he was reproaching the entire impressionist group in 1880 for their poor tactics in presenting themselves to the public and for not having fulfilled their early promise, “It is enough to paint great works, and if they should be refused for ten years and badly hung for another ten, they would always finish by having the success they deserve. . . ”Since this was precisely the course Cézanne was following—he had exhibited only twice in the independent impressionist exhibitions which Zola came to believe harmful to the group—it is difficult to reconcile Zola’s words with his actions. He owed much to Cézanne; more, perhaps, than Cézanne owed to him, for he had abandoned his friend as an artist. His failure to discern Cézanne’s caliber, or to evince any admiration for him as a painter, might be due to any of several causes. It is not impossible that Zola was an opportunist—he had certainly seen the advantage of allying himself with Manet—and it seems quite probable that he became uncertain of his own artistic judgment. If the public could accept his work, but would not accept comparable work in the field of painting, something must be wrong with painting and with his previous assessment of it.The rift between Cézanne and Zola became complete with the publication of L’Oeuvre. Cézanne, who had a keen and perceptive mind, recognized himself in that miserable failure, the frustrated hero, Claud Lantier, and a suspicion which had been growing in his mind for years became a fact; his dearest and closest friend had failed completely to understand either the cause of his struggle or the fruit it was beginning to produce. He was deeply wounded, but not embittered. It was not until he learned that Zola had later paid a visit to Aix without making any attempt to see him that he felt completely crushed. Neither saw the other again, and the friendship which had begun so happily in Aix many years before was quietly ended.
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Source: "Cézanne and Zola," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 39, no. 3 (January, 1950): 13-15.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009