A-Level: Édouard Manet, Émile Zola

Édouard Manet, Émile Zola, 1868, oil on canvas, 57 x 45″ / 146.5 x 114 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

This portrait was painted in appreciation for the support Zola gave to Manet in his 1866 essay in La Revue du XXe siècle and during Manet’s independent exhibition held alongside the Universal Exposition in 1867.

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re at the Musée d’Orsay, and we’re looking at Edouard Manet’s portrait of Émile Zola, who was a very important 19th-century novelist.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] And art critic. Behind Zola is an image of Manet’s “Olympia,” and Olympia seems to look down at Zola [laughs] and Zola was also a friend of Cézanne’s. So Zola is an important figure in this circle. This is a really new kind of portrait, something very different than a viewer would have expected.

[0:31] It doesn’t give us very much information in the way that a portrait usually gives us information, that is, through the face.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:40] He’s actually turned away from us. You get a sense that he’s at his desk, at his studies, and in some way, he’s turned towards us just for a moment, almost in a pause of reflection.

[0:49] Not to look at us as if we were the camera, for instance, but we have caught him in this odd three-quarters view that’s really almost a profile.

Dr. Harris: [0:57] There is something that doesn’t really register emotion there. It’s not that he looks like he’s been absorbed in thought and looked up from his reading. There’s a kind of illegibility.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] To the face.

Dr. Harris: [1:10] In his face and I think that quality of not being able to read a narrative, something we see frequently in Manet’s work, we have it here in a portrait, where it’s incredibly frustrating, especially frustrating because we want to have a sense of the person.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [1:33] So we can’t read his emotions or his interior life through his face. There’s a kind of flatness to the way the face is rendered. Look also at the book that is turned towards us. It is similarly illegible.

[1:35] We can’t read the text there. The artist is forcing us away from the reading of the particular to a broader kind of reading.

Dr. Harris: [1:43] It’s like the objects themselves have become more important than the figure. We have the Japanese screen behind him, so we can see that interest in the art of Japan that’s coming so much into Europe now that Japan’s been opened.

[1:57] We see another Japanese print in the background. We see a Velázquez print.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [2:02] That’s right. “The Drinkers” up at the top.

Dr. Harris: [2:04] We have a little pamphlet on Manet that Zola has written, which is also Manet’s signature.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [2:12] Then a lovely inkwell, which is also East Asian. I want to look at this compositionally for just a sec.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] It’s a very, very complicated composition.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [2:16] The figure is fit into a series of geometric shapes. There’s the right angle that is created by the frame on the upper right. Then you have a skewed right angle from the book, which almost functions as an arrow pointing towards Zola himself.

[2:35] Then Zola’s body is an echoing right angle, which is echoed again by the chair. And so you have this cascade of these right angles moving from upper right down to lower left.

Dr. Harris: [2:44] Then you get it again in the upper left with the edge of the Japanese screen.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [2:46] That’s right, although in the opposite direction. There is a kind of interest in the two-dimensionality, which is a reference again to Eastern art. That comes across also in the flattening of the face and the ways in which the jacket is so dark that you lose all spatial definition there.

Dr. Harris: [3:06] There’s very little modeling in the face, there’s little modeling in the clothing. There is a real flatness. In fact, the space itself is very, very shallow, so everything is very close to us. There’s a kind of irony there because, despite its closeness, I feel no closer to Zola.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [3:24] All of that paint remains paint, all of that paint is almost like a Velázquez.

Dr. Harris: [3:27] Yeah, look at the chair.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [3:31] If you look at the books as well, if you look at the inkwell, if you look at the feather, the quill that comes out, the tools of Zola’s trade.

Dr. Harris: [3:36] There’s very much a focus on reminding us that this is paint on canvas and refusing in a way to do the things that paint is supposed to do. I do get a feeling of this image of a modern literary man, a portrait of a man in his age in Paris at the end of the 1860s.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [4:05] In a sense, the lack of focus on Zola — and it’s such a curious thing to say because this is a portrait of Zola — but the lack of focus on Zola, in a sense he is leveled with the things that he finds important, the things that influence him, the things that make up his art.

[4:16] This very modern notion of Paris being a place where the world can come together, where the influence of the East Asian, where the visual, the literary, where all of those things mix and that art is born.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Édouard Manet, Émile Zola," in Smarthistory, July 20, 2017, accessed July 20, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/edouard-manet-emile-zola-2/.