Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Photography versus Caricature: "Footnotes" on Manet's Zola and Zola's Manet

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century French Studies

Photography versus Caricature: "Footnotes" on Manet's Zola and Zola's Manet

Article excerpt

The cult of the writer-celebrity belongs to nineteenth-century France, and Emile Zola is as famous as they come. The trajectory of Zola's career began with his rise to fame as an art critic, which was partially eclipsed by his lame as a novelist, which was, in turn, somewhat eclipsed by his fame as the author of J'accuse (1898). Throughout his fluctuating literary and social career, Zola's image was created, reproduced, collected, and exhibited. Zola's public visibility began in the late 1860s with a number of portraits by avant-garde artists such as Edouard Manet, Henri Fantin-Latour, Paul Cezanne, and Frederic Bazille. In the early 1880s the canvas took to the kiosk with the Freedom of the Press legislation, and anti-Naturalist caricaturists began to attack Zola's private life, tastes, and habits. The steady stream of anti-Naturalist caricatures was then joined in the late 1890s by an enormous outpouring of political iconographic propaganda--caricatures, photographs, playing cards, board games, posters, engravings, and medals--from both the Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard press. Late in Zola's career, after he had nearly finished his Rougon-Macquart series and his tightly-knit group of fellow Naturalists had for the most part disbanded, Zola took up photography, producing thousands of sentimental family portraits, melancholy English landscapes during his year in exile, aestheticized shots of Paris in the months preceding the 1900 World's Fair, a near-journalistic reportage of the World's Fair, and a set of curious nature morte compositions (Emile-Zola and Massin). (1)

The bulk of scholarship on the art surrounding Zola is either a demure study of avant-garde portraiture or a less dignified foray into the "hysteria" of the 1890s French popular press. The study solicits the result: Zola is either characterized as the gentleman-scholar or, alternatively, the pervert-radical. Scholars delving into Zola's relationship with the more traditional visual arts have typically documented how Zola's privileged friendships with the habitues of the Cafe Guerbois nurtured his theses on the nature of art (e.g., Rewald). Zola's body of fiction is thus mined for his aesthetic theories and the similarities of certain fictional characters to historical people or paintings (e.g., Niess; Brady). On the other hand, when the visual document belongs to one of the less traditional categories of art images, typically from the 1880s and 1890s, it is interpreted only in terms of its critique on Naturalism. The result is that Zola's photography, what he described as his "violon d'Ingres," is lumped together with his pronounced literary style (Zola, Photo-Miniature 396). (2) The insistence on Zola's distinct images is highly problematic, and the result is fragmentary. The caricatures are not contextualized with the earlier portraits, nor are Zola's photographs considered for their visceral response to public image and media spin. An organic history of Manet's 1868 Portrait de Zola as a French man of letters, the competitive image offered by caricaturists in the 1880s and 1890s, and Zola's own photographs as yet another dialectic at the turn of the century illuminates how the nineteenth century created the cult of literary celebrity and how celebrities experienced fame and defamation.

Zola's public defense of Edouard Manet was mutually beneficial. In defending Manet's reputation, Zola solidified his own. When Zola published his literary portrait of Manet in 1867, it was in response to "les farceurs contemporains, ceux qui gagnent leur pain en faisant rire le public" (Salons 86). Apparently Manet had been caricatured as "une sorte de boheme, de galopin, de croquemitaine ridicule," and Zola wanted his literary portrait to set the story straight (86). Zola described Manet in great physical detail:

   Manet est de taille moyenne, plutot petite que grande. Les cheveux
   et la barbe sont d'un chatain pale; les yeux, etroits et profonds,
   ont une vivacite et une flamme juveniles; la bouche est
   caracteristique, mince, mobile, un peu moqueuse dans les coins. … 
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