by Émile Zola
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
In the Spring of 1866, the Paris newspaper L’Evenement commissioned a 26-year-old author, Émile Zola — whose first novel, “The Diary of Claude,” had been published the previous fall — to review that year’s Salon, later to become infamous for the number of influential painters, notably Zola’s chou-chou Edouard Manet, to have work refused. Zola — also close to Paul Cezanne, with whom he’d grown up in Aix-en-Provence — had several axes to grind; his first review would take on the Salon jury by name, reviewing their individual qualifications (and work). By number seven, the public had had enough of this upstart who not only attacked institutional art but rejected established critical norms; the newspaper’s editor, Monsieur Villemessant, ceded to the threats of cancelled subscriptions and other insults and aborted Zola’s assignment. (As detailed by Henri Mitterand in “Zola, Journaliste.”) As a sort of prelude to his reviews — which he’d initially planned to pen under the pseudonym of “Claude” — Zola sent Villemessant and his readers the following account of the suicide of the painter Jalos Holtzhpapfel, after he was rejected by the Salon.* (Zola was not finished with either “Claude,” painters, or artist suicides; the doomed hero of his 1886 novel “L’oeuvre,” loosely inspired by the early critical fates, if not the styles, of Manet, Claude Monet, and Cezanne, would be named Claude Lantier.) To read more of Zola on art, click here. Have a document that needs translating? Contact Paul Ben-Itzak at email@example.com by pasting that address into your e-mail program. And at the same address to learn more about Paul’s collaborative “Suicide Artists” project.)
April 19, 1866
“You have charged me, my dear Monsieur Villemessant, with talking about our artists to L’Evenement’s readers, a-propros of this year’s Salon. It’s a heavy task which I have nonetheless accepted with joy. I will doubtlessly displease many people, decided as I am to recount many horrible truths, but I take an intimate pleasure in unburdening my heart of all the gripes accumulated over the years.
“You have assured me: ‘Make like chez vous.’ I will thus speak without mincing any words, as a veritable authority. I count on sending you, before the opening of the Salon in several days, an outline of my over-riding credo as well as a rapid study of the artistic moment we are currently living.
“For today, I have imposed upon myself a sad mission. I believe that I have the responsibility of talking about a painter who blew his brains out several days ago, and about whom none of my colleagues will no doubt concern themselves.
“The rumor had been circulating for several days that an artist had killed himself, after the Salon refused his canvasses. I wanted to see the atelier where the unhappy individual committed suicide; I was able to learn the address, and I’ve only just returned from the sinister room whose parquet floor is still splattered with large burgundy stains.
“Do you not think it is a good idea to make the public penetrate this room? I took a kind of bitter pleasure in telling myself that, from the beginning of my task, I’d be hurtling against a tomb. I think about those who will have the applause of the crowd, of those whose work will be spread out widely in the full light of day, and I see at the same time this miserable man, in his deserted atelier, writing his farewell note and spending an entire night preparing himself to die.
“I’m not trying to be maudlin, I assure you. I knocked on this door with a profound sentiment, and my voice trembled with trepidation when I questioned a woman who opened the door and who was, I believe, the suicide’s maid.
“The atelier is small, ornately decorated. At the right, near the entrance, is an oak sideboard, intricately carved. In the corners of the room more furniture, also oak, is arrayed, a sort of paneled trunks with drawers. Ropes attached at either end with red seals quarantine each of these pieces of furniture. One can see that the dead man must have brushed bruskly against them.
“At the right the bed was stretched out, a bed low and flattened out, a sort of narrow divan. It is here… that he was found, the head loping and crushed, as if he was sleeping.
“The pistol hadn’t fallen from his hand.
“I didn’t even recognize his name. I had no idea if he had any talent, and I still don’t know. I wouldn’t dare judge this man who has departed, fatigued by the struggle. I did indeed spot four or five of his canvasses hanging on the wall, but I did not look at them with the eyes of a judge. At the Salon, I’ll be severe, maybe even violent; here, I can only be sympathetic and moved.
“The artist was German, and his paintings reflect his origins. These are compositions of the Charles Comte variety, historic scenes drawn from the Middle Ages. On an easel, I noticed a white canvas with a pencil composition completely aborted. No doubt the final work. The painter killed himself before this unfinished oeuvre.
“Certainly, I’m not claiming that the jury’s rejection was the only factor in the death of this unhappy man. It’s difficult to penetrate a human soul at this supreme hour of suicide. The bitternesses slowly pile up until one arrives to deliver the coupe de grace.
“They nevertheless tell me that the artist was of a gentle character and that he wasn’t known to have suffered any particular vexation. He had some money, he was able to work without worry.
“Truly, I would not liked to have condemned this man. If I were a painter and if I had been among those who had had the honor of excluding my fellow painters from the Salon, I’d be having nightmares tonight. I’d see the suicide again, I’d tell myself that I had without doubt contributed to his death, and in any case, I would be tormented by this horrible idea that my indulgence would have without doubt prevented this sinister denouement, even if the artist harbored some secret disappointments.
“You certainly want me to draw a moral from all this. I won’t give you this moral today, because it will only duplicate the articles that I’m preparing for L’Evenement.
“I’ve written this letter simply to place a fact before the eyes of the readers. I’ll enlarge as I can the file of my grieves against the jury which functioned this year.
“That’s about it for now. I have a strong case to bring against it.”
We’d initially agreed, Monsieur de Villemessant and I, that I’d review the Salon under a pseudonym. Already signing an article practically every day, I didn’t want my signature to appear twice in the same newspaper.
I am now obligated to remove my mask before I’ve even attached it; there are many jackasses at the livestock fairs named Martin and there are also, it seems, many Claudes among the ranks of art critics. The real Claudes were afraid of being compromised because of my article “A Suicide”; and they’ve all written to inform our readers that it wasn’t them who had the audacious idea to put the jury on trial before the court of public opinion.
That they be re-assured: It has been decided that I should boldly confess that the revolutionary Claude in question was none other than me.
Voila the entire Claude tribe tranquilized.
*Collected in “Émile Zola: écrits sur l’art,” Editions Gallimard, 1991, edition established, presented, and annotated by Jean-Pierre Leduc-Adine.