Emile Zola’s L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece): Fine Line Between Artistic Genius and Mental Illness?

Why Emile Zola’s title has been translated as The Masterpiece isn’t very clear to me. Literally, l’œuvre means “the work;” “masterpiece is “chef d’œuvre.”

Zola’s main character, artist Claude Lantier, actually fails to produce a masterpiece. It isn’t even obvious that Claude thinks of the large piece he’s been working on as a potential chef d’œuvre. He is obsessed by it—that’s clear enough. But as Zola describes it, that obsession has an undercurrent of sexual passion, akin to Pygmalion’s (a sculptor) for his Galatea (a statue). Unfortunately, in Claude’s case, his painted woman doesn’t come to life.

L’Œuvre, one of 20 books in Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle, tells a tragic, heartbreaking, depressing story. Not so much because of the work Claude never finishes, but because his failure is, in fact, brought on by mental illness. To me, that’s what makes Claude’s fate tragic. Hailed as an artistic genius by his friends, his impotence in bringing his vision to fruition leads him to take his life. But is it artistic impotence or mental disorder that’s the direct cause of his suicide?

It’s remarkable how Zola, in the late 1800s, could give so detailed a description of what’s happening to Claude that a psychologist could probably make a diagnosis from the behavior and feelings Zola presents. When I recounted those descriptions to Rich, who’s a clinical psychologist, he said it sounded like schizoaffective disorder.

Monsieur Zola is often cited as the “founder” of literary naturalism, an offshoot of realism that not only tries to depict reality as vividly as it could but which also strives to make it science-based. I suppose doing so dramatizes the literary movement’s desire for representing truth. Taken in that vein, I think Zola succeeds in his objective to chronicle the effects of heredity, environment and time on members of the Rougon-Macquart family. Early on in the novel, we learn that Claude has mental illness in his family. Zola, thus, prepares us for what eventually happens.

But of course, this book like The Belly of Paris is more complex than the trope of an unrealized artistic genius dying for his art (facilitated by his descent into mental illness). It also shows the hopes and dreams of youth being trounced by time and circumstance, the pettiness and bitterness of people who blame their failures on others, their jealousies and malicious glee when one of their own comes tumbling down from his position of prestige and money. Maître Zola has indeed dissected the human heart.

Cezanne et Moi

It’s been pointed out a lot that Claude is a composite of both Paul Cezanne, Zola’s friend from their youth in Aix-en-Provence, and Edouard Manet, the artist who subverted classicism with its subject matter of gods, saints, illustrious men and their doings and shepherded art into “freer” techniques and depictions of the modern life of ordinary people.

Both men revolutionized art (Cubists Picasso and Brock both acknowledge their debt to Cezanne) but neither killed himself nor was born into poverty. So how is Claude like them? He isn’t. But Zola presumably modeled the painting Claude exhibits at the Salon des Refusés (Rejected) on Manet’s Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe. What’s more, from my knowledge of art history, Cezanne also had a mistress who bore him a son and who he married later.

This book interested me deeply for another reason: Its depiction of what happens during the French Academy art shows when works by Manet caused a scandal. You read about it in art history books (this, for example) but the agony, triumph, mockery, excitement, etc. have never come alive the way they do in Zola’s novel. At that art show, Manet’s tableau, like Claude’s last picture at the exhibition, was hung high up near the ceiling.

For a sunnier picture of the friendship between Zola and Cezanne, watch Cezanne et Moi on Netflix streaming.

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