The Cursed Painter
The whole world took Émile Zola to task for having maligned Cézanne, his childhood friend, when he used Cézanne as the model for the character of Claude Lantier in his novel L'uvre (usually translated into English as The Masterpiece). It’s the story of the decline of an artist, who, refusing to make any compromises, either aesthetic or social, cuts himself off more and more from the public, ruins his family, and finally hangs himself in front of his final painting. Though it’s often said that Cézanne ended all relations with Zola after reading the novel, in fact, letters found later prove that this wasn’t true. Cézanne was, without a doubt, gruff and stubborn, but it was just that stubbornness that allowed his work to attain the great heights that it did. Quite the opposite of Lantier’s isolation. Lantier is not Cézanne; he is an allegory. That said, however, the two men did have points in common. For example, Lantier claimed that he’d rather die of hunger than cave in to commerce, which for him included doing portraits for bourgeois clients, an activity he considered on a par with painting restaurant awnings and baubles for churches.
Cézanne and all artists worthy of that word have understood that dignity prohibits them from painting portraits that flatter their models. Walter Sickert, an astute observer of manners and traditions, said that there were two types of portrait painters: those who are the servants of their commissioners, and those who are their masters. Modern painting is no longer done under commission. Cézanne and Manet’s time was the era of portraits of family and friends. (Even if, with Manet, some of them became famous.) Zola’s novel begins, and here the character lives his life; we lend him thoughts, concerns, a story. Victorine Meurent became Olympia and returned for the déjeuner sur l'herbe. Madame Cézanne, their son Paul, the gardener Vallier, and the uncle Dominique are all characters in Cézanne’s novel. Cézanne wanted models who posed without posing. He didn’t want to paint a pose, but a person. Barely a person, just a figure. To paint his wife as he would an apple or Mont Sainte-Victoire, that was Cézanne’s challenge. Too subtle to constitute material for a novelist such as Émile Zola, it would have taken a Flaubert. Some 50 years later, in his small studio in the rue Hippolyte Maindron, Giacometti, too, focused on portraits of those close to him—his brother, his wife, etc. Jean Genet, one of his friends and a writer, saw in this the celebration of the dignity of the most modest people, such as a homeless person encountered in the metro. With Giacometti, Cézanne’s lesson draws to a close.
Translated from the French by Cole Swensen.