Emile Zola is best known as a novelist and founder of the Naturalist movement in literature. He transferred his convictions and values to the area of criticism, and provided a fresh and challenging perspective on the art world of 19’th century France. Of particular note is his review of the Salon of 1899 that appeared in a prominent French newspaper of the time, L’Evenement.
Among a number of topics’ Zola attempted to introduce readers to his aesthetic and emotive outlook on art. He establishes a system of hierarchy of the attributes that make up the work. At one end, Zola observes the “element of reality.” It is the unchanging set of perceptual ideas that we derive from nature and can “serve as a common measure,” if such a thing is possible. At another end, is the “element of individuality.” The unique characteristic of vision of the artist and his creation, without which “no picture could be more then a simple photograph.”
The importance of the individual and unique character in the works of art is stressed through the article. There is little doubt that Zola was delighted by the works of some of his contemporaries with whom he admitted to be “at ease.” (1966 My Hates) In particular, the ideas of the “strong, harsh character” that “seizes nature in his two hands” corresponds perfectly with the works of Gustave Courbet, expecially his famous stonebreakers. The unflagging honesty and roughness of forms give a unique character two the painting of two tired road workers. From the review, it is evident, that Zola could not help but embrace the works of another famous painter of the time. Eduard Manet shared a close bond with the author, and produced works that demonstrated many of the principles Zola held dear. In the work entitled “Olympia,” Manet captured an unprecedented directness in the gaze of a reclining prostitute, mimicking in composition Titian's Venus of Urbino, but achieving a very different feeling. Manet is not treating us with “the little tricks and scheming flatteries” but confronts us with the reality. It is a tired and dispassionate face of the courtesan and the pose untouched by the virtues of chase that give a powerful and unsettling character to the work. On a slightly different level, Zola’s ideas can also be found in the works of Claude Monet. His “Women in the Garden” dated around the same time the review was first published was one of the precursors to what later became impressionism. It depicts a group of people relaxing in the garden, painted with loose brushstrokes in natural light. While the forms are fairly traditional in their representation, the work possesses a unique feeling of personal involvement of the artist. Zola noted his profound interest in the “man” behind the painting rather then a picture.
It will not be fair to constrain Zola’s vision by the statements and propositions as he himself note in conclusion, the changing nature of the arts and expectations and notes the error of judging “works of tomorrow” by contemporary standards.