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"It may interest readers of Zola's L'Oeuvre to learn about one of the characters, who perforce sat for his portrait in that clever novel (a direct imitation of Goncourt's Manette Salomon). Paul Cézanne bitterly resented the liberty taken by his old school friend Zola. They both hailed from Aix, in Provence. Zola went up to Paris; Cézanne remained in his birthplace but finally persuaded his father to let him study art at the capital." --Promenades of an Impressionist, James Huneker

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

L'œuvre is the fourteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series by Émile Zola. It was first serialized in the periodical Gil Blas beginning in December 1885 before being published in novel form by Charpentier in 1886.

The title, translated literally as "The Work" (as in work of art), is often rendered in English as The Masterpiece or His Masterpiece. It refers to the struggles of the protagonist Claude Lantier to paint a great work reflecting his talent and genius.

L'œuvre is a highly fictionalized account of Zola's friendship with the painter Paul Cézanne. Zola and Cézanne grew up together in Aix-en-Provence, the model for Zola's Plassans, where Claude Lantier is born and receives his education. Like Cézanne, Claude Lantier is a revolutionary artist whose work is misunderstood by an art-going public hidebound by traditional subjects, techniques, and representations. Zola's self-portrait can be seen in the character of the novelist Pierre Sandoz.

The book is often blamed for ending the friendship between Cézanne and Zola. The story of a groundbreaking artist unable to live up to his potential must have seemed intensely personal to Cézanne; no correspondence exists between the two after a letter in which Cézanne thanks Zola for sending him the novel.

The novel covers about 15 years, ending in 1870. Besides depicting the bohemian art world of 19th-century Paris, L'œuvre explores the rise of Realism, Naturalism, and Impressionism in painting. Zola also looks at contemporary sculpture, literature, architecture, music, and journalism, as well as the commodification of art.

L'œuvre was first translated into English by Ernest A. Vizetelly in 1886 (reprinted by Barnes & Noble in 2006). Several other translations have appeared over the years. One of the most readily accessible is that by Thomas Walton (1957), revised in 1993 for Oxford World's Classics.

Plot summary

Painter Claude Lantier advocates painting real subjects in real places, most notably outdoors. This is in stark contrast to the artistic establishment, where artists painted in the studio and concentrated on Classical and religious subjects. His art making is revolutionary, and he has a small circle of like-minded friends equally intent on shaking up the art world and challenging the establishment. His best friends are his childhood comrades Pierre Sandoz, a novelist, and Louis Dubuche, an architect. Like Zola, Sandoz contemplates a series of novels about a single family based in science and incorporating modern-day people and everyday lives. Dubuche is not half as bold as Claude and, although a painter, finds music to be his passion. He chooses a more conventional course, opting for the security of a middle-class life and a bourgeois marriage. Sandoz also pursues marriage - not for love, but stability and to better understand what he is writing about. The outcry in the artistic community over the sidelining of new artists in favor of popular, established, traditional artists at the annual Salon of the Académie des Beaux-Arts leads to the creation of a Salon des Refusés for the rejected artists to display their work. No painting gathers more interest or generates more criticism than Claude's. Entitled Plein Air (Open Air), it depicts a nude female figure in the front center and two female nudes in the background, with a fully dressed man, his back to the viewer, in the foreground. (Zola deliberately invokes Le déjeuner sur l'herbe by Edouard Manet, which provoked outcries at the actual Salon des Refusés in 1863.)

Claude moves to the country to soak up more of the 'Open Air' atmosphere he reveled in as a child and to create more masterpieces. Accompanying him is Christine Hallegrain, who served as the model for Claude's nude, and they have a son. However, Claude is unable to paint much and grows more and more depressed. For the sake of his health, Christine convinces him to return to Paris. Claude has three paintings in three years rejected by the Salon before a spectacular view of the Ile de la Cité captures his imagination. He becomes obsessed with this vision, and constructs a massive canvas on which to paint his masterpiece. However, he is unable to project his ideas successfully or combine them into a meaningful whole. He begins adding incongruous elements (like a female nude bather), reworks and repaints until the whole enterprise collapses into disaster, then starts over. His inability to create his masterpiece deepens his depression. The slow breakup of his circle of friends contributes to his decaying mental state, as does the success of one of his confreres, a lesser talent who has co-opted the 'Open Air' school and made it a critical and financial triumph.

Christine, whom he has at last married, watches as the painting — and especially the nude — begins to destroy his soul. When their son dies, Claude is inspired to paint a picture of the dead body that is accepted by the Salon (after considerable politicking). However, the painting is ridiculed for its subject matter and its execution, and Claude again turns to his huge landscape. Christine watches as he spirals further into obsession and madness. A last-ditch effort to free him from Art in general and from his wished-for masterpiece in particular has an effect, but in the end, Claude hangs himself from his scaffolding. The only ones of his old friends who attend his funeral are Sandoz and Bongrand, an elder statesman of the artistic community who recognized and helped nurture Claude's genius.

Relation to the other Rougon-Macquart novels

Claude Lantier (b. 1842, the son of Gervaise Macquart and Antoine Lantier) is first introduced briefly as a child in La fortune des Rougon. In L'assommoir, he comes to Paris with his parents, but returns to Plassans under the sponsorship of a local patron who recognizes his artistic talent. In Le ventre de Paris, Claude has returned to Paris, and is discovered in the Les Halles marketplace searching for realistic subjects to paint.

Zola's plan for the Rougon-Macquart novels was to show how heredity and environment worked on members of one family over the course of the Second French Empire. Claude is the son (and grandson) of alcoholics and inherits their predisposition for self-destruction. Furthermore, all of the descendants of Adelaïde Fouque (Tante Dide), Claude's great-grandmother, demonstrate what today would be called obsessive-compulsive behaviors. In Claude, this is manifested in his obsessive approach to making art.

Claude's brothers are Jacques Lantier (La bête humaine), the engine driver who becomes a murderer, and Étienne Lantier (Germinal), the miner who becomes a revolutionary and union agitator. Their half-sister is the prostitute Anna (Nana) Coupeau (Nana).

Claude's son Jacques-Louis also figures in L'œuvre, his death from unspecified causes being brought about by his parents' neglect. In him, Zola shows what happens when energy and natural creativity are stifled.

Historical basis

The book includes a few autobiographical details. As a young journalist, Zola wrote many articles on art and he was deeply interested in the newest ways of painting; he was one of the earliest champions of the work of Édouard Manet. The character of Sandoz, a young writer whose ambition is to write a story of a family that would portray the present epoch, is most clearly a self-portrait of the author. The basis of some of the other characters, including Claude Lantier, is murkier. Though Claude is most often understood as being based on Cézanne, the Impressionist painters Édouard Manet and Claude Monet are often cited as other possible sources. (In fact, Claude Lantier's first painting in the book is based on Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe.) However, in a letter written immediately after the novel's appearance in 1886, Claude Monet (who was acquainted with both Cézanne and Manet) indicated that he did not recognize himself or any of his fellow painters in the character. Other parallels between the author’s life and the novel include Lantier’s dead child painting being similar to Monet’s portrait of the deceased Camille (his first wife), Lantier’s idea of mobile studios mirroring Monet’s, and loose ties equating Fagerolles and Manet. In the book, the Open Air school got its name from the title of Lantier’s first mentioned painting. In real life, the Impressionists got their name from Monet’s Impression: Sunrise. Both Open Air (Plein air) and Impressionism were insulting names given by critics and jeering crowds.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "L'Œuvre" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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