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Zola's face

If your steps lead you to the Granet museum in Aix-en-Provence, you can contemplate a painting by Paul Cézanne representing the head of his friend Émile Zola. In 1863, the two friends were under 25 years old. They spent a lot of time together, make long visits to the Salon des Refusés, which does not please Monsieur Cézanne senior at all, who sees his son under the influence of Zola with a dim view. Would Paul therefore give up taking over from him in the bank he recently acquired? For brushes and color?

Zola denies it. He writes: "I loved Paul like a brother, always dreaming of his happiness".

Paul Cézanne. Émile Zola. 1862-1864. Musée Granet
Paul Cézanne. Émile Zola. 1862-1864. Musée Granet

The painting, of small dimensions (26 cm high by 21 cm wide), focuses on the head of Zola, leaning forward in the middle of the raw canvas. The writer seems absorbed in his thoughts, walled in deep reflection. The thin, straight nose, the upturned upper lip, the short haircut, the well-trimmed beard, the very present eyes give this portrait a character of uncompromising truth. At the beginning of the 1860s, Zola was at a turning point in his life, he joined Hachette, he met Lamartine, Renan, Michelet, he frequented Camille Pissarro and Antoine Guillemet, he developed his activities as a journalist, he wrote his first book "les Tales to Ninon".

Édouard Manet. Emile Zola. 1868.© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Édouard Manet. Emile Zola. 1868.© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

A few years later, it was Édouard Manet who painted an Émile Zola who often visited him in his studio. From November 1867 to February 1868, Zola posed for Manet in his study, rue de Moncey. Exhibited at the Salon of 1868, the work attracted contrasting appreciations. Le Petit Journal qualifies Manet as "head of the school of ugliness", while La Presse pays homage to the "uncommon power of the painting". We find there, hung on the wall, a reduction of the Olympia whose head has been re-oriented to look at Zola. We also find the book that the latter had written to courageously defend a decried Manet.

Jean-François Raffaelli. Portrait de Zola sur la couverture de "l'Assomoir". 1892. Collection d'Edmond de Goncourt. BNF
Jean-François Raffaelli. Portrait de Zola sur la couverture de "l'Assomoir". 1892. Collection d'Edmond de Goncourt. BNF

Painter, sculptor, writer, Jean-François Rafaelli, naturalist painter par excellence, was very close to Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Edmond de Goncourt. The latter collected in the attic where he received his friends, a copy of each of their favorite books, illustrated by an artist of his choice. Thus in 1892, Raffaelli painted on the cover of "l'Assommoir", the portrait of Zola in his maturity, serious and tired.


In his art history lectures, Fabrice Roy combines the past with the present, in a poetic and playful evocation of the French 19th century...



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