The Masterpiece (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]


Emile Zola's The Masterpiece (L'oeuvre) is the story of a young artist, Claude Lantier, and his struggle against the indifference and hostility of an ossified art world. His aim is revolutionary, for he believes that his dream of representing "the whole of modern life" will yield "a series of canvases big enough to burst the Louvre." Yet as an artist ahead of his time, he cannot prevail against the hidebound standards of the Academie des Beaux Arts-and, increasingly, against the limits of his own ability to ...
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The Masterpiece (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Emile Zola's The Masterpiece (L'oeuvre) is the story of a young artist, Claude Lantier, and his struggle against the indifference and hostility of an ossified art world. His aim is revolutionary, for he believes that his dream of representing "the whole of modern life" will yield "a series of canvases big enough to burst the Louvre." Yet as an artist ahead of his time, he cannot prevail against the hidebound standards of the Academie des Beaux Arts-and, increasingly, against the limits of his own ability to paint the grand works that he envisions. Set in the bohemian milieu of nineteenth-century Paris, The Masterpiece recreates the art world that Zola knew well, both as a journalist and as the boyhood friend of one if its premier artists, Paul Cézanne.
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Meet the Author

Emile Zola, born in Paris in 1840, was raised in Aix en Provence in conditions of extreme poverty following the death of his father in 1847. In 1865, he decided to support himself by writing alone. The Ladies’ Paradise is the eleventh novel in a series of twenty novels under the generic title The Rougon-Macquarts: the Natural and Social History of a Family Under the Second Empire. In this series, published between 1871 and 1893, Zola scientifically documents the effects of heredity and environment on the Rougon-Marquart family.  
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Emile Zola's The Masterpiece (L'oeuvre) is the story of a young artist, Claude Lantier, and his struggle against the indifference and hostility of a convention-worshipping art world. His aim is revolutionary, for he believes that his dream of representing "the whole of modern life" will yield "a series of canvases big enough to burst the Louvre." Yet as an artist ahead of his time, he cannot prevail against the hidebound standards of the Academie des Beaux Arts-and, increasingly, against the limits of his own ability to paint the grand works that he envisions. Although his meeting with Christine Hallegrain, who becomes his model, mistress, and wife, leads to temporary happiness, Claude persists in his futile attempts to create a masterpiece as fine in its execution as in its conception. In doing so, he transforms Christine and their son Jacques into mere subjects for his art, rejecting their humanity and the perishable, imperfect reality that it represents in his ultimately disastrous quest for artistic perfection. Set in the bohemian milieu of nineteenth-century Paris, The Masterpiece recreates in vivid terms the art world that Zola knew well, both as a journalist and as the boyhood friend of one if its premier artists, Paul Cézanne, who with the painter Édouard Manet served as a model for Claude Lantier. As a backstage view of the exciting period when impressionists like Manet, Cézanne, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were about to transform the art world, and as a timeless rendering of the conflict between artistic ideals and the limitations of real life, The Masterpiece is one of Zola's most compelling novels.

Born in Paris on April 2, 1840, the son of Venice-born engineer François Zola and his French wife, Emilie, Emile Zola grew up in Aix-en-Provence and attended the Lycée Bourbon, where he became friends with Paul Cézanne. In 1858 he moved to Paris, and by 1862 he had worked his way up from shipping clerk to the advertising department at the publishing firm of Hachette, a position that enabled him to meet important literary men of the day. Leaving Hachette in 1865 after the publication of his first novel, La Confession de Claude, Zola began the dual careers of journalist and novelist that he would pursue for the rest of his life. Never reluctant to arouse controversy, in April 1866 he ruffled the feathers of the art establishment with a series of seven articles titled "My Salon" in L'Evénement. In this series, he excoriated the judges for refusing to admit works by Cézanne, Manet, and other new artists to the annual Salon exhibition, an episode that occurs in The Masterpiece. Also controversial, even sensational, was Zola's 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin, a study of passion, infidelity, obsession, and murder that established his reputation as a serious writer. By 1870, the year he married Eléonore-Alexandrine Meley, Zola was a rising man of letters, and the surprising success of his novel L'Assommoir in 1877 and its later dramatic adaptation allowed the couple to move to a country house, Médan. During this period, Zola described to a friend his process of writing:

I can't invent facts, as I completely lack imagination. . . . I only know my principal character-my Rougon or my Macquart, male or female. . . . I reflect on his character, I think of the family in which he was born, on his first impressions, and on the class in which I have decided to place his life. . . . After spending two or three months in this study . . . I have in my head a quantity of types, of scenes, of fragments of dialogues . . . which form a confused story. . . . Then there remains the most difficult task of all-to attach to a single thread . . . all these reminiscences. . . . I write a little every day, three pages of print, not a line more, and I only work in the morning.

Using this method, Zola published a novel a year for the rest of his life, including his major achievement, the twenty novels in the Rougon-Macquart series.

Inspired by Honoré de Balzac's multivolume La Comédie humaine, the Rougon-Macquart series traces the course of two families, the Rougons and the Macquarts, in the context of the Second Empire reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870) with most focusing on a large political issue, social institution, or historical event, such as a strike by coal miners (Germinal, 1885), peasant life in the countryside (La Terre, 1887), or the Franco-Prussian War (La Débâcle, 1892). The novels' focus on environmental and social forces, the effects of heredity, the emphasis on determinism, and the workings of human desires and drives also marks them as classic examples of French naturalism, of which Zola was a leading proponent. In Le Roman experimental (1880), a naturalist manifesto, he had proposed that novelists treat their characters as subjects in an experiment and that through the novelist's careful observation, the laws governing human behavior would be revealed, including inherited traits or flaws such as alcoholism that destroy lives in each generation. Because of this need to study the heredity of interconnected families, characters reappear in more than one novel: Claude, the hero of Masterpiece (1886), appears as a younger man in Le Ventre de Paris (1873) and briefly in L'Assommoir (1877), the story of Claude's mother, Gervaise Lantier, later Coupeau, and Claude's dissolute father; Nana (1880) treats the life and death of his half-sister Anna (Nana) Coupeau, a prostitute. By the 1890s, with the Rougon-Macquart series drawing to a close, Zola was a well-established writer whose circle of friends included Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant. On January 13, 1898, however, he thrust himself into the midst of controversy once more for the cause of justice with his polemic "J'accuse." An open letter to the president of France, "J'accuse" condemned Army officials for the false conviction (driven by anti-Semitism) of Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of espionage, opening a furious national debate about the affair. Zola was promptly charged with and convicted of libel, avoiding a jail term only by escaping to England until the uproar over the case forced the government to give Dreyfus a new trial and Zola a pardon. Zola returned to Paris in 1899 and died of accidental asphyxiation from a blocked chimney on September 29, 1902.

Although The Masterpiece resembles a roman á clef, a lightly fictionalized story based on real characters, it is actually more of a Künstlerroman, or the story of an artist's growth and development, with its universal themes of a new artistic vision striving to break through conventional attitudes and the conflict between the ideal and the real. In keeping with that tradition, Zola provides a large cast of characters who serve as foils for Claude in addition to the many richly described spaces-cafes, the beautiful pastoral landscape at Bennecourt to which Claude escapes with Christine during their love affair, the scenery of the long walks that Claude takes with Sandoz, and above all the two different Salon exhibitions described in great detail-that mark his progress. The novel's immediate source is clear: the growth of the impressionist movement as seen through Zola's character Claude Lantier, and to a lesser extent through the comments of Claude's close friend Pierre Sandoz, a journalist whom Zola modeled on himself. Like later painters Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, Claude advocates painting outdoors, en plein air ("in the open air"), a style that favors heightened attention to light and shade over "Courbet's black painting [that] already reeks of the mustiness of a studio which the sun never penetrates." Yet unlike the style of the impressionists, who emphasized spatial impressions rather than temporal connections, Zola's technique is marked by a "postponement of identification and deferral of causes," a "progressive style," as William J. Berg calls it in The Visual Novel: Emile Zola and the Art of His Times, that fits both naturalism's grounding in reality and its emphasis on causation. In creating the character of Claude, Zola drew on the physical characteristics and lives of two artists he knew well: his boyhood friend Paul Cézanne, and Édouard Manet, who had painted his portrait in 1868. Despite Claude's resemblance to Cézanne in physique, temperament, and family ties, his career more closely resembles Manet's. For example, Claude's first attempted masterpiece, which he calls Plein air (Open Air), recalls Manet's famous Dejuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) in which a nude woman picnics on the grass with two fully clothed men; like Open Air, Dejuner sur l'herbe was turned down by the judges of the Académie des Beaux Arts for the Salon exhibition in 1863 and exhibited only later that year at the Salon des Réfuses, or exhibition of rejected pictures. Claude likewise shares with Manet an interest in the ordinary street scenes of Paris, including the intrusion of the mechanical into the landscape that is the subject of Claude's last failed masterpiece, Port Saint-Nicolas, but unlike Manet, whose technique included sketchy, almost unfinished-looking canvases, Claude overworks his paintings, destroying any lightness of touch in his quest for a masterpiece. It is this obsessive quality of the process of art that is Zola's real subject, for Claude's plight is that of every artist-"ever battling with reality, and ever beaten, it was a struggle with the Angel," a reference to the Biblical episode of Jacob wrestling with the angel. In its own time The Masterpiece was not much more well received than Claude's paintings, even by the artists who saw themselves in the work. As Claude Monet wrote to Zola, "I am afraid that our enemies in the press and public may drag Manet's name or at least our names into it in order to make us out to be failures-something which I don't want to think you intended." Serialized in the periodical Gil Blas before appearing in book form, it received mixed reviews, sold fewer copies than most other novels in the Rougon-Macquart series, and marked the end of Zola's friendship with Cézanne.

One important theme in the novel, the tension between realism and romanticism, is expressed directly by the characters and indirectly by the narrative voice. Claude, Sandoz, and their friends ridicule romantic ways of seeing, and Claude protests the stale classicism that would allow the sculptor Mahoudeau to describe his statue of a woman as a Bacchante rather than as a simple grape-picker. Yet the novel is filled with descriptions of beautiful landscapes characteristic of a romantic perspective: "From one end to the other the slanting sun powdered the houses on the right bank with golden dust, while, on the left, the islets, the buildings, stood out in a black line against the blazing glory of the sunset." Moreover, although the novel officially scoffs at romantic ideals of spontaneous genius, the actual process of artistic creation celebrated in the novel is closer to the workings of romantic inspiration than to the dogged work that Claude puts into his paintings. Similarly, the older artist Bongrand, having created a masterpiece, The Wedding Party, in his youth, learns that that diligence is no substitute for genius when exhibiting a companion piece painted in old age, The Funeral Party. More pointedly, Claude is cast as the romantic visionary to Sandoz's naturalist observer; as Sandoz remarks at his funeral, "Our generation has been soaked in romanticism, and we have remained impregnated with it. It is in vain that we wash ourselves and take baths of reality."

Another of the novel's principal themes is the tension between the ideal and the real, which is primarily expressed through the symbol of a woman's body. For the artist, woman represents both ideal subject and treacherous reality: enshrined as an art object, a woman never ages or fades, and she is a blank slate for the artist's idealism; as real human beings, however, women represent a dangerous realm of the flesh, pulling artists away from their calling into a time-bound world of sexuality, bourgeois materialism, aging, and death. The impossibility of reconciling these competing ideas is seen in the many examples of dismembered or fragmentary women's bodies mentioned in the text. For example, Claude first meets Christine Hallegrain on the Rue de la Femme-Sans-Tete, or the "street of the headless woman," and in his early efforts to complete Open Air he attempts unsuccessfully to paint a model's body onto the head of Christine, which he had sketched while she was sleeping. Critics have also pointed out another form of fragmentation: Claude's interest in women's bellies as a site of creation. Throughout the text, women's bodies defeat the artists; not only do real women entangle artists in destructive relationships, as happens with the architect Dubuche, but the artists' representations of the female form also prove lethal, as when a huge clay statue of a woman thaws out and falls on its sculptor, Claude's friend Mahoudeau, wrapping him in a dangerous embrace and nearly killing him. Equally deadly is Claude's insistence on using the nude body of a woman, to which he adds increasingly fanciful details, as a tantalizing but incompletely realized figure of the romanticism that cannot coexist within the industrialized natural landscape in his last painting.

Christine Hallegrain seems at first an exception to this rule of dangerous women: a respectable, well-educated young woman, she poses nude for Open Air, sacrificing her modesty to do so, and as first friend, then lover, then wife does all she can to support Claude's art. She even subordinates the interests of their child, Jacques, to those of Claude, and when she begins to pose for Claude again after a dozen years, she endures his cruelly dispassionate comparison of her nude body with his portrait of her twenty-year-old self. She suffers the loss of Jacques, the wasting of whose body beneath an abnormally large head allegorizes Claude's neglect of the body in favor of the imagination, and does not even protest as Claude begins to sketch Jacques' dead body for what will be his only Salon picture, Dead Child. For Claude, the making of art justifies all, even the metaphoric consumption of the bodies of those who love him; the transformation of these raw materials into art results in the only true flashes of genius he is ever to commit to canvas (Open Air, Dead Child). But as Claude transfers his affections from the real Christine to the woman in his picture, her jealousy drives her to desperate measures. Holding a candle up to his painting, she speaks at last, this time with the critical voice of realism: "See what a monster you have made of her in your madness! Are there any women like that? Have any women golden limbs, and flowers on their bodies? Wake up, open your eyes, return to life again!'" Although she wins him back to her bed, her triumph is temporary, for having abandoned his art in a fit of renewed passion for Christine, Claude makes his way to the painting once more and hangs himself beside it, thus renouncing life itself in his devotion to art.

The Masterpiece is thus both a specific representation of a crucial period in the history of art and an insightful perspective on the plight of the artist who must tread a narrow path between fetishizing the body as an art object and ignoring art in favor of the pleasures of the flesh. More broadly, it deconstructs the differences between a committed and an obsessive devotion to one's work. As Sandoz tells Claude, "work has taken up the whole of my existence. Little by little, it has robbed me of my mother, of my wife, of everything I love. It is like a germ thrown into the cranium, which feeds on the brain, finds its way into the trunk and limbs, and gnaws up the whole of the body." Above all, in its lightly fictionalized depiction of the artists who taught the world to see in ways that were modern-to see colors in shadows instead of the conventional black-it speaks to an age saturated in visual culture, reminding all that a focus on the elusive image at the expense of the real can come at too high a price.

Donna Campbell is associate professor of English at Washington State University. She is the author of Resisting Regionalism: Gender and Naturalism in American Fiction, 1885-1915 as well as articles on Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, Stephen Crane, and other writers of literary naturalism.

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