If this painting isn’t iconic, the term should be banished from the vocabulary of art. Forget, for a moment, Mona Lisa’s smile and the Sistine Creator transmitting the spark of life to Adam. Set aside what was to come, including Picasso’s LesDemoiselles d’Avignon (1907). They, obviously, have their claims.

Picture, instead, a painting of a darkish forest glade whose human figures look, at a glance, as if they might have been painted by a gifted eighth-grader with a precocious interest in female anatomy. A nude lady—if “lady” is the word—sits on the turf with her head turned, smiling pleasantly in the painter’s direction, hand on chin, as if to ask: “What about this?” Keeping her company are two fully dressed young men, one reclining and gesturing to the other, who seem to be having a conversation—though not about the unusual situation. Some distance behind them, another young woman, fully dressed, appears to be bathing.

What is odd—or was odd, when Édouard Manet exhibited this famous scene, Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) in Paris a century-and-a-half ago—is the air of nonchalance, as if there were nothing special about a nude maiden keeping company, in a wooded glen, with fully attired young men in the Paris of 1863. And maybe there wasn’t, though that was not the judgment of the art world of that age. Nudity itself could hardly have been the issue: The bare body had been a fixture of painting and sculpture since antiquity. Even Michelangelo’s heavenly hosts, for that matter, are mostly bare. But, as one historian remarked, Manet had transformed nudity into nakedness.

This picture—an image that would define modern painting for years to come—signaled the beginnings of a revolution in craft and taste whose sesquicentennial fell this past year. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe was not the first picture to flout academic convention or scandalize traditionalists. But nothing quite like it had been seen before, and hundreds of visitors to the Salon des Refusés, where it first came to public view, thought it must be some sort of joke. For one thing, the graduated shadings that defined the contours of human faces and limbs were missing; Manet’s style was, as one critic put it, “flat as a postcard.”

The unlikely impresario of the Salon des Refusés was the mischievous Emperor Napoleon III, who at that moment was intriguing to reestablish an imperial foothold in Mexico. Fearing that the judges who controlled the yearly Salon in Paris had excluded worthy works, he decreed the special exhibit known as the Salon des Refusés and offered experimentalists their viewing. But what was to follow?

One who followed, and had an emphatic say, was the young Émile Zola (1840-1902), journalist, story-teller, and pamphleteer, who was ultimately to become, after his model Balzac, the author of an encyclopedic cycle of novels and tales documenting French life in the latter half of the 19th century. The son of a Venetian-born civil engineer, he had imbibed the scientism of his time. He believed that “naturalism,” given its innings, would carry the day for the “new painting,” as he called it—and he viewed Manet as its prophet, though, to many eyes, Manet’s pictures looked anything but “natural.”

Zola’s heroic role in the Dreyfus case three decades later is well-known. What is less well-known is his role as a passionate exponent of the art exemplified by Manet and others whose names would soon be equally celebrated, including Degas and Cézanne.Their dissection of light would become the vital mark of Impressionism, a movement that was probably in the cards even if there had been no Zola to celebrate it. Technical developments,including tube paints and chemical pigments that permitted artists to emerge from dim indoor studios and paint in the open air, led to the new treatment of light. The new optics meant that landscape painting would never again be the same.

It was not written, however, that painters would depict their mistresses in that open air.

Zola’s intervention in this painterly revolution would be less well-remembered today had he not amplified his views in two novels, Thérèse Raquin (1867) and L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece, 1886). The first is a morbid tale of adultery and murder in which the role of art is minor but crucial. Two scheming lovers plot to drown the woman’s husband on a rural outing, but their victim’s ghost spoils their sexual idyll. Every time the man, who is an artist, tries to revive his modest skills, the resulting portraits, regardless of period or mode, favor the murder victim. Even their bedroom, scene of the lovers’ anticipated trysts, is haunted by a crude portrait of the victim. They imagine that his mouldering corpse lies between them in their bed and finally end their insomnia by mutual suicide.

In the later and longer tale, a young and ambitious painter, Claude Lantier, returns to his Parisian atelier on a stormy night to find a young woman huddled in his doorway. She spends the night there (modestly concealed) and then disappears. But the reader knows that Claude hasn’t seen the last of her. She soon returns to become, by stages, his model, his mistress, and finally his wife. She is exactly the model he needs to complete an ambitious nude for the Salon. But the painting for which she models, the central feature of this magnum opus, becomes an obsession he cannot finish. He hangs himself in despair.

T. S. Eliot, wearing his hat as master critic, once ventured the controversial view that Shakespeare had failed, artistically, in what he meant to do in Hamlet. The problem, Eliot wrote, coining a jawbreaker term, was that the drama lacked an “objective correlative,” a persuasive metaphor, for Hamlet’s alleged irresolution—“in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” Eliot’s diagnosis remains controversial, to say the least; but it bequeathed an enduring term for the failure to render an idea or emotion successfully as art.

When I set out to reread Zola’s two novels of art, I expected to find in them an “objective correlative” of the supportive views he had expressed about the “new painting.” Zola does venture an overarching metaphor for the artist’s struggle with his subject—the struggle of the biblical patriarch Jacob, who endured a night-long wrestling match with an angel who left him with a blessing, a new name, and a damaged hip. The episode is a metaphor in Zola’s parables of art, made familiar also by Delacroix’s mural in the Paris church of Saint-Sulpice. But the angels that Zola’s artists wrestle with both turn out to be angels of obsession and death: In Claude Lantier’s tale, the gigantic nude whose pursuit on canvas defies him drives him to madness and suicide, less a denouement than a deus ex machina.

Was Zola, the journalist and pamphleteer-turned-novelist, trying to tell his readers something about the bewitching fatality of art? Or nudity? It is fair to ask that a novelist’s parables of craft clearly transmit a truth about the craft in question, but there is no law that they must; and Zola’s art novels do not. We still don’t know why his artists, unlike the young polemicist he himself had been a few years earlier, are ultimately defeated by the challenge of painting and driven to kill themselves.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.

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