The cover of Robert Lethbridge's new monograph, Zola's Painters, is one of those almost-serendipitous cases where the exactly right image presents itself. This is one of those paintings in which an imaginary gathering takes place: the people in it likely never met all at once, and they are juxtaposed more neatly than any photographer could hope for. (Compare the cover of David McCallam's book on André Chénier, another such gathering.)
Robert's cover is, for one thing, itself a painting: it is by Henri Fantin-Latour, and in English is called 'A Studio in the Batignolles District' (1870). This is a big canvas, nearly 3m wide, so that the figures are nearly life-sized in the Musée d'Orsay, where it now hangs, only a few miles from where it was painted. The studio is Manet's: he is the figure actually painting, but is surrounded by his peers. Behind him, intently watching his work and perfectly aligned in the gilt picture-frame so obligingly present on the wall, is Renoir. And who is the figure looking out rightwards from the second group, whose modest, mousy sort of expression has a certain keen intelligence, and who is fingering a pair of silver glasses? This is the novelist Émile Zola, who draws the eye considerably more than, for example, the almost hidden Claude Monet at the far end. If Zola is not quite an artist himself, he is certainly present at the creation. It is not even Zola's only appearance in art: there's a Cézanne of Zola, too, though that canvas has travelled rather further and now hangs in São Paulo.
How did Zola come to be such a figure in the art world? One answer is that he was a newspaper correspondent, covering the latest Paris sensations for the Marseille papers. Zola was an early advocate for Manet, and was alive to the possibilities of the new, which surely endeared him to struggling artists making their way. But of course Zola was also a shockingly modern creator in his own right. And so the traditional version of the story runs like this: Manet and Renoir drag painting into a new age, Zola drags the novel into a new age, and it's all of a piece.
Robert Lethbridge is not so sure. Having sleuthed in provincial newspaper archives, and edited and published Zola's writings on art — and nearly tripling the size of what Zola is known to have said on the subject — he finds a critic with much greater sensitivity to the Old Masters, and to everything that the Impressionists were supposedly dispensing with.
(For the record, Robert also dissents from my description of Zola's face as mousy.)
Zola's Painters is due out in our Research Monographs in French Studies series in 2022.