As the author of the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, Émile Zola enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest novelists of the 19th century: but his essays on painting, and in particular his early championing of Manet, mark him out also as one of the most significant art critics of the age. Zola’s Painters is the first book to explore the entirety of this body of work in its own right: some 150 texts written over thirty years. Robert Lethbridge, editor of the new Classiques Garnier edition of this corpus (two-thirds of which he unearthed himself from the newspapers in which they original appeared), now offers a radical reevaluation of Zola’s writing on contemporary artists. The novelist’s approval of the Impressionists, for example, must be seen in the light of an equal admiration for the Old Masters, which sits uneasily with Zola’s modernist credentials as they are celebrated by posterity.
Robert Lethbridge is a Life Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and Emeritus Professor of French Language and Literature in the University of London. He is currently Hon. Professor at the University of St Andrews.
‘In Zola’s Painters, Lethbridge has condensed a detailed textual history of art criticism that ran through the novels and the hundreds of articles that constituted the literary and intellectual agenda Zola pursued. He has mastered the vast scholarship on the major artists, writers, and cultural figures of Zola’s times to provide a comprehensively informed analysis of the critical lens through which the writer viewed his contemporaries’ productions... His rigorous archival and textual investigation combines with an admirable ability to write clearly and convincingly about the complex aesthetic, social, political, and economic interchanges of the second half of nineteenth-century France.’ — Therese Dolan, Nineteenth-Century French Studies 51.3-4, Spring 2023
‘Dans cette étude richement illustrée, où, parmi beaucoup d'autres, les reproductions des tableaux de Corot, Monet et Véronèse accompagnent et prolongent la perspective du texte, la démonstration s'emploie à décomposer le regard et le goût d'un écrivain qui, précisément, compose avec la peinture et ses maîtres : de portraits en paysages, de critiques en repentirs, à rebours de l'idée reçue d'un romancier à la culture visuelle limitée, insensible aux subtilités et aux techniques picturales, et écrivant lui-même au couteau voire à la truelle, se dessine sous la plume de Robert Lethbridge la figure d'un Zola fin connaisseur et amateur des arts, observateur attentif de l'expression et des délicatesses du tempérament artiste d'hier et d'aujourd'hui.’ — Marion Glaumaud-Carbonnier, Les Cahiers naturalistes 97, September 2023, 347-350
‘Zola’s importance as an art critic – his energetic commitment to naturalism as well as his detection of recidivism, his instinctive alliance with artists whose capacities he felt echoed his own – is forcefully assessed in this dense and valuable study.’ — Richard Thomson, Burlington Magazine 165, September 2023, 1042-43
‘Robert Lethbridge’s outstanding study of Zola’s painters brings together the many strands of the naturalist author’s complex engagement with the art and artists of the late nineteenth century. This compelling and persuasive narrative maps the politi- cal and aesthetic valences of the perennial dialogues, disputes, dramas, and doubts between Zola and his (erstwhile) friends, Cézanne, Manet, Monet, and others in the Impressionist circle.’ — Alexandra K. Wettlaufer, French Studies 2023 (full text online)
‘Zola’s Painters offers an excellent example of why scholarly work on the nineteenth century is so important: the myths and half-truths, as well as the political, social, and personal complexities which shaped the art and literature of the period and their reception, need to be fully interrogated, even if we are left with more intriguing questions than satisfying answers.’ — Claire Moran, Modern Language Review 118.4, October 2023, 624-25 (full text online)