Dolan on Lethbridge (2022)

Lethbridge, Robert. Zola’s Painters. Legenda, 2022, pp. 230, ISBN 978-1-83954-079-0. 

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.   

Lethbridge launches his exploration of Zola’s painters by examining the role of the novelist whose task as an art critic is to tackle a form of aesthetic expression to which the writer is inexorably drawn but whose métier is distinct in its materials and processes. Zola took his artistic education seriously by scouring the museums and Salons in Paris, studying artistic and architectural monuments in Rome, examining the treasures of the National Gallery in London, but especially frequent contact with the artists of his time. Zola worked from the beginning to destabilize the prevailing discourse, playing the role of a divisive literary David lobbing verbal stones at the mandates of the Salon juries and art academies of Second Empire and Third Republic France.  

Countering chronological expectations, Lethbridge discusses Zola’s relationship to Paul Cézanne before addressing Gustave Courbet, Manet, and landscape painters. As his closest childhood friend, Cézanne functioned as Zola’s first gateway to understanding and appreciating art. Much has been made in the scholarship examining the alleged end of their relationship after the appearance of L'Œuvre whose failed painter, Claude Lantier, bore striking resemblances to Cézanne. The discovery of a letter from Cézanne to Zola in 1887 put an end to the speculation that the novel severed their friendship. Lethbridge’s tactical understanding of the time and the character of the two men leads him to conclude that it was their ideological differences over the Dreyfus Affair that drove a wedge between them. Additionally, critics seized on the purported rift to elevate the painter over the writer. Lethbridge squarely addresses Zola’s lack of critical support for Cézanne in his writings by demonstrating that the writer judged others by their resemblance to himself, a point that he convincingly reiterates throughout this text.  

One sees this highlighted in Gustave Courbet’s controversial work and career that provided Zola with a platform on which to underscore the aesthetic postulates that subtended his own writings. Lethbridge mines Zola’s response to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1875 Du principe de l’art to counter the premise that art should demonstrate political tendencies in its goal to alter human consciousness. This allowed Zola to assert that a work of art was a corner of nature seen through a temperament. As he would do with Manet, Zola wavered between rapture and rupture when tracking Courbet’s career, retrofitting the Realist master’s achievements to sustain his own agenda as he charted his own course. 

Zola began promoting Manet’s reputation in public in 1866 when he first defended the artist against the scandals created by the works for which the artist is best known today, his Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia. Zola endorsed Manet then as an artist who was indifferent to subject matter and composition, free from influences of older artists. Lethbridge deftly signals Zola’s words on Manet as a prod to Cézanne to work harder and be more productive, demonstrating how the tentacles of Zola’s criticism reached out in multiple personal and professional directions. Yet, as grateful as Manet was for Zola’s backing, he knew Zola had misapprehended several aspects of his art. His portrait of Zola (1868) embedded several witty visual clues that many scholars have delighted in decoding to read the portrait. Zola wrote little about Manet after 1870. Yet the two men were so closely allied in the public’s mind that when Zola petitioned to write the preface to Manet’s posthumous exhibition in 1884, his offer was accepted. Lethbridge points out that writers such as Carol Armstrong and others have long maintained that Zola tacked back to earlier writings and repeated what he had previously written. The author’s exhaustive knowledge of Zola’s writings and his habits of close reading serve him well here as he clears up that misapprehension by highlighting Zola’s appreciation of works not previously discussed.

Lethbridge’s chapter on landscape brings to the fore Zola’s too-often neglected writings on the Barbizon school. He praised Camille Corot’s exactitude and fidelity which coordinated with his own Naturalistic bent. Zola pronounced the death of the school of classicized historical landscape so admired by the Academy in 1875 and used his 1880 essay on Le Naturalisme au Salon to foster the refreshingly frank nature of Camille Pissarro’s and Charles François Daubigny’s landscapes. When the modern countryside devoid of classical references and moral erudition appeared in the landscape works Zola’s pen would flow with praise for the affinity of these visual supporters to the Naturalism he espoused. Zola famously parted ways with the Impressionists due to the sketchy facture of the brushstroke where the light and color became diminished as the solidity of the object or figure tended toward abstraction rather than definition. As a writer who saw his duty as translating his keen observations into striking prose, he wanted the brush of the painter to be as accurate as the pen of the novelist in its precise evocations of settings.

Lethbridge’s summary chapter testifies to the breadth and depth of his life’s work on Zola. Most scholars of Zola’s art criticism end their investigations with his dissatisfaction with Impressionism and the artists of his time as personified in the characters and narrative of L'Œuvre. Not so with Lethbridge, who terminates his study with an analysis of Zola’s appreciation of the Old Masters that challenges us to reorient our understanding of the full scope of Zola’s knowledge of the traditions of art.

Along with the appearance of Lethbridge’s 2021 publication of Zola’s Critique littéraire et artistique: Tome I – Écrits Sur l’Art: Oeuvres Complètes, we now have access to the full scope of Zola’s immense corpus of art criticism with Zola’s Painters providing a rich thematic exploration of its highlights. He consistently challenges the reader to find new ways of reorienting our understanding and evaluating the contribution of one the most astute writers of the period. 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
Temple University