Rachel Cohen

Life Studies: Artist's Model

By Rachel Cohen
Subscribers can read the essay in The New Yorker here.

This essay on the ruptured friendship of Émil Zola and Paul Cézanne appeared in The New Yorker in 2005 and is available to subscribers.  


Zola was Cézanne’s oldest friend—until he wrote a novel about him.

"When Émile Zola and Paul Cézanne stopped speaking to each other, they had been friends for thirty-four years. They met in 1852, at their school in Aix-en-Provence, when they were twelve and thirteen, and they both cherished memories of their shared boyhood. Cézanne kept with him a screen that he and Zola had decorated together—the screen appeared in a number of his paintings—and Zola often evoked those beautiful days when they would set out before dawn, books in their pockets, to walk in the hills: “They had an instinctive absorption at the bosom of Nature, the unconsidered adoration of boys for trees, streams, mountains. . . . From the time they were fourteen they were solitaries, enthusiasts, ravaged by the fever of literature and of art.” When, at the age of seventeen, Zola moved to Paris with his mother—Zola’s father had died when the little boy was only six—the young writer and the aspiring painter kept up a passionate correspondence. Cézanne, a fine Latinist, sent long, humorous poems in complicated metres. Zola’s eyes were already turned toward artistic success, and he often placed his talents second to his friend’s. “Give me a great painter, or I shall never forgive you,” he exhorted. And, protectively, “I don’t want anyone to spoil my Cézanne for me.”
         Zola persuaded Cézanne to join him in Paris, and, once there, Cézanne helped Zola to understand the work of Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, whose paintings from life and nature fought the stuffy prescriptions of the official Salon. When the Emperor Napoleon III proclaimed, in 1863, that for once the pictures rejected by the French Academy of Fine Arts would be shown to the public, Cézanne and Zola went together to the Salon of the Refused to see the bourgeoisie outraged by the naked picnicker in Manet’s “Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.” Zola was fired with enthusiasm—he was always a battler for the downtrodden—and wrote his first pieces of art criticism in defense of Manet and those who came to be known as the Impressionists. The essays were published under the title “My Salon,” with a long dedicatory letter to Paul Cézanne: “It’s for you alone that I wrote these pages, I know that you will read them with your heart and that, tomorrow, you will love me more affectionately.” Cézanne seems never to have complained that his own paintings were hardly mentioned in the book; he appreciated the way Zola patiently came back to sit for him even after he had one of his rages and smashed up the canvases. They were young, and everyone they knew was poor, but Zola was working hard as a journalist and surviving, and on Thursday nights they would all crowd into Zola’s apartment and eat the one decent meal of the week. Then they would argue about painting and nature and revolution late into the night."