Monday, April 15, 2013

The Masterpiece

Should we devote our time and energy to leaving a mark in some way (a painting, a sculpture, an opera, a fortune), or should we indeed ‘spend more time with our family’ and live for the present?

Zola seemed to let us answer the above question by depicting Claude Lantier’s struggles between arts and life, imagination and reality. The Masterpiece—although not Zola’s masterpiece—is a prominent work from the Father of Naturalism which was also the most autobiographical piece from Les Rougon-Macquart series. Claude was the son of Gervaise and Auguste Lantier (in L’Assommoir), now lived in Paris as a painter. Together with his junior artist friends (painters, architect, sculpture, novelist, journalist), he started the new wave of arts, which later on became Impressionism. Zola’s own personalities could be found in Pierre Sandoz, Claude’s closest friend, a novelist who acted as ‘the glue’ of their friendship since school to their adult lives as artists. They met every Thursday to discuss about the fading Romanticism that they hated, and the urge to bring their fresh ideas of Impressionism to public.

Claude was the leader of this group (it is assumed that either Paul Cézanne and/or Claude Monet or Edouard Manet might have inspired his character). Real objects, natures and outdoor landscapes were his obsession—while at that time painters used models for indoor paintings of mythological or historical themes. Unfortunately his paintings were repeatedly rejected by the Salon des Refusés (an exhibition of works rejected by the jury of the official Paris Salon), while his friends—who adopted his ‘Open Air’ ideas and who were less talented than him—could gain successes little by little.

Bennecourt, where Claude & Christine spent their happy times together

Claude then found a perfect landscape in Ile de la Cité for his masterpiece, and became obsessed to paint it in big canvas, using his wife Christine as his nude model. However, no matter how hard he had worked on it and revised it many times over, Claude could never put the painting in a meaningful whole; and this depressed him severely. Claude could never recover from his humiliating failure until the end, and it ruined Christine’s life too in the process.

The Masterpiece (originally L’Oeuvre or The Work) is simply Zola’s way to criticize Parisian arts society. Many of the artists were so obsessed to be famous and a master of their art, that they ignored their private lives, happiness and families. They were never satisfied with their works, and worked madly day and night to create such a masterpiece; often drove themselves to severe despair or even madness. But on the other hand, there was also the Salon with its overwhelming tasks to sort art works from hundreds of artists. The Selection Committee would decide whether their works deserved to be hung for the Salon or not. This committee would walk together from rooms to rooms, inspect each painting, and vote for its inclusion or exclusion.

People gathered to discuss Cezanne's painting,
might it be some kind of the Salon?

I can imagine how tiring the task might have been, and in those pressured events, who could maintain their fair judgment all the time? It was more than possible that a painting of a talented artist would be rejected just because it’s different from the current trend. And don’t forget, there were many collectors who did not understand arts and just took whatever the Salon exhibited as the most valuable paintings to collect. In short, there were so many small wrong aspects in the Salon exhibitions running by men who might not have had enough artistic sense to execute their jobs, while these aspects might have influenced an artist’s failure or fortune, wealthy or poverty.

Although The Masterpiece would not shock you like L’Assommoir or entertain you like Germinal, but it’s enough to take us to see the ugly struggles beneath the beautiful works of arts! Zola wanted also to make us see how a child who was born from generations of drunkards might be deformed either mentally or physically. Claude, in particular, had the problem of madness attack every time he was exposed to an intense emotion. The art was the dearest thing of his existence; it’s his life, it’s his soul….

“What was Art, after all, if not simply giving out what you have inside you?”

But that was also one thing that triggered his madness, and when the madness came, it would dominate him such, that his painting would be one disaster. Oh, poor Claude! The only one which made him happy, caused his ruin. Genius in brain but corrupted in soul….and that was not his fault! It’s his parents’; but most of all, it’s the society…Paris of the late 19th century, under the Second French Empire.

Although the novel has a rather hopeless tone, it actually marks the turning of the century. The birth of impressionism in arts—and painting is only one of them, because it would change architecture, sculpture, literature, and music as well—would certainly bring a new change to the civilization.

Four stars for The Masterpiece, a very interesting and educating novel! And thank you Monsieur Zola for ever writing it….

“What price glory, then, the thing we’d die for?”

“In life everything comes to an end, but nothing is ever repeated.”


I read the Oxford World’s Classics paperback version

This book is counted for:

1st book for Zoladdiction
40th book for The Classics Club


  1. This is my favorite Zola novel and I've read it twice. I most enjoy Zola's descriptions of the art.

    1. I agree with you.. It is a great work. It shows how a person who is out of the group (i.e. the Academy of Fine Arts) and who does not comply with the group's rules would be sujbect to discrimination and rejection. On the other hand, as for the first question at the top. I believe that one should first identify his/her priorities in life, then decides what goals would marriage achieve. If artworks creation is the goal, maybe one should not get married in the first place, in order to prevent the destruction of one's life as well as the others.

    2. Amanda, I also loved Zola's description of the landscapes. This one is really entertaining.

      Maan, I agree with you, I think if a man have an undivided passion in arts, he should focus himself in it.

  2. Reminds me quite a bit of Van Gogh and, in particular, a fictional memoir written about him by Irving Stone, based on Van Gogh's letters to his brother. This looks really interesting... I have only read one book by Zola (Germinal) but I absolutely loved it. I think, since I'm also a fan of these artists and their inner cricles, I should definitely move this one up to the top of my list. Maybe I can read it this summer... thanks for the thoughts! (And good work with making progress through your TBR Pile!)

    1. Yep! I thought about Lust for Life a lot when I was reading this. Claude possesses the same overwhelming passion that leads to madness when he was absored in his painting, just like Van Gogh. To be honest, I like Lust For Life slightly more than The Masterpiece...

      Germinal is Zola's best, so you have chosen the best way to start with Zola.

      Yeah...I did well so far with my TBR pile, everything worked as I had planned it, hopefully I can go on like this for the rest of 2013. :)

  3. I just finished this one, I'm almost finished with my review. I liked it but not as much as La Bete Humaine or Germinal. Sandoz was my favorite character -- I really liked getting all the insights into the struggles of both artists and writers. Claude's a real train wreck just like the rest of his family!

    1. Yeah, I felt exactly the same, luckily I chose this before going to La Bete Humaine, so I can have a great climax for Zoladdiction.


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