The familiar image of the struggling artist — locked away in his studio, desperately seeking inspiration, and, perhaps more importantly, validation — was the invention of 19th-century French novelists, asserts historian Anka Muhlstein. The young bohemians of Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera La Bohème, which was based on a novel by Henri Murger, included the likes of a painter, a poet, a musician, and a philosopher. But it is the special relationship between writers and painters that preoccupies Muhlstein’s close readings and biographical accounts in her book The Pen and the Brush, published earlier this year by the Other Press.
The book’s introduction contextualizes the social phenomenon of art appreciation as not only a subject of literary fascination but also an activity that was indulged in by the masses in post-Napoleonic France. The many works pillaged by the military during the Revolution and at the height of the French empire would eventually wind up in the Louvre. And as the museum’s collection swelled, so did the public’s interest. “The notion that art belonged to the people was now entrenched in the French collective consciousness, and the working classes continued to visit the museum throughout the nineteenth century,” Muhlstein writes. It was with this mindset that the period’s most prolific writers — Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, J.K. Huysmans, Guy de Maupassant, and Marcel Proust — could so organically weave into their fiction frequent references to real-life paintings, artists, and major debates occurring within the art world.
In one of Muhlstein’s deep dives linking passages from novels to actual works of art, she recounts how Balzac drew inspiration from Eugène Delacroix’s “The Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” after viewing the painting at the 1834 Salon. Orientalist elements such as a Turkish divan, a carpet that “looked like an oriental shawl,” and a secret entrance hidden behind a tapestry would all make their way into the interior setting of Balzac’s tragic novella, The Girl with the Golden Eyes (1835). A self-described “literary painter,” Balzac earned that title, argues Muhlstein, for his ability to create such vivid tableaus in his writing.
Interestingly, she also notes that Balzac wrote about more characters who were painters than writers. He revealed a profound interest in chronicling the artistic process, as epitomized in the short story “The Unknown Masterpiece” (1831): “Of all these delicate and short-lived emotions, none so resemble love as the passion of a young artist for his art, as he is about to enter on the blissful martyrdom of his career of glory and disaster, of vague expectations and real disappointments.” These disappointments manifest in the story through the old master Frenhofer, who is driven to madness over the perceived failure of his latest work. A generation later, a young painter named Paul Cézanne would claim to deeply identify with the character of Frenhofer.
While Balzac fancied himself more of an art lover than critic, and effectively an observer on the outside looking in, Zola, a childhood friend of Cézanne’s, came of age entrenched in the world of painters — specifically among a group of contemporaries known as the Impressionists. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Muhlstein devotes a majority of her book to Zola and his social circle. Having begun his career as an art writer, he wielded considerable influence and used his position to advocate for the young artists of his day. Muhlstein details the mutual admiration he shared with other artists, and their resulting reciprocal exchange of ideas and themes. For example, the subject of Manet’s “Nana” (1877), which shows a courtesan standing before a mirror, can be directly attributed to a character of Zola’s creation, while Zola credited Degas for first introducing him to the figures of working women.
In other instances, Muhlstein considers how Zola’s proximity to well-known painters left his peers feeling exposed. Upon the publication of The Masterpiece (1886), which depicts the downfall of a fictional painter named Claude Lantier, Monet wrote a letter complaining to Zola: “You have been careful to ensure that none of your characters resembles any one of us, but in spite of this, I’m afraid that our enemies in the press and the general public will mention Manet or at least name us as a group to make us look like losers.” There was also long-held speculation that the novel caused a rift between Zola and Cézanne, although Muhlstein dispels this with a previously undiscovered letter. Her anecdotal style lends itself particularly well to retelling such back and forth correspondence between famous personas, as if it were a modern-day celebrity Twitter feud instead.
Indeed, we see how the Impressionists became so sought after that they were no longer portrayed as struggling but as successful painters. Muhlstein refers to Maupassant’s Like Death (1889) as “rigorously contemporary” in its depiction of an established yet aging artist, Olivier Bertin. At the peak of his career, he has coasted on the patronage and attention of his married lover, the Countess de Guilleroy, for years. Yet, as the novel progresses, the white-haired Bertin becomes increasingly fixated on the loss of youth, and inevitably projects that obsession onto the middle-aged countess’s teenaged daughter. Appropriately, Muhlstein informs us of the shifting tides — “The stage now belonged to the Postimpressionists” — and by the time we arrive at Proust, the heyday of the Impressionists is over.
For Muhlstein, “The last great fictional painter of the nineteenth century is Proust’s Elstir.” She contends that In Search of Lost Time marks the end of a true symbiosis between painting and literature. Although many great novelists would continue to seek inspiration from visual artists, she concludes, “The old partnership between writers and painters…had evolved into something completely different.” While Muhlstein’s book avoids drawing 21st-century parallels, she does foreshadow the evolution that would take place in the last century, describing Zola’s technique borrowed from the Impressionists as “creating something like a tracking shot in film.” The need to translate this effect into more current terminology reflects not only how ubiquitous digital and moving images have become in our time, but also the impact of these mediums on the way we see. Just as the novelists of the past could easily utilize the language of painting with their readers because of its emergence as a democratic art form, our present-day culture writers often turn to regularly consumed entertainment such as movies and television shows.
Perhaps another indicator of the time passed is how little a writer like Zola devoted to women artists, even though Mary Cassatt, Eva Gonzales, and Berthe Morisot would have certainly been known to him. “The women in The Masterpiece are defined exclusively by their relationships with their male partners,” Muhlstein points out, though she fails to further investigate the consequence of this male-heavy gaze. And so, we’re left wondering if her narrative of this bygone era is partially incomplete in the otherwise illuminating read.