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Émile Zola was a bad art friend.

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January 14, 2022, 1:54pm

It’s safe to say the biggest literary story of 2021 was the saga of the Bad Art Friend. Writer and GrubStreet writing instructor Sonya Larson lifted a Facebook post Dawn Dorland, a writing acquaintance and fellow GrubStreet instructor, posted about donating a kidney and put it in a short story about a delusional, white savior-ish kidney donor; Dorland found it and pursued legal action; hundreds of texts and emails between Sonya and her writing group dunking on Dorland surfaced in discovery; Twitter exploded with discourse about artistic freedom and ethics among fellow writers. The Bad Art Friend story was sticky for several reasons—the mean messages between the derangedly-named “Chunky Monkeys,” the regional clout of GrubStreet, the kidney donation detail, writers’ desperation to tweet about writing when it comes up in the news—but this kind of artistic conflict is far from new. Case in point: the rift between Émile Zola, novelist/playwright/founder of the naturalism movement, and painter Paul Cézanne. Their decades-long friendship was destroyed when Zola, in a Sonya-like move, wrote a book heavily featuring a self-destructive, unsuccessful painter.

Zola and Cézanne might seem a bit like unlikely animal friends, but their enduring friendship started in childhood. When Zola went to boarding school after his father’s death, he met Cézanne—a year older, bulkier, and wealthier—who protected him against school bullies. Artists in a sea of layabouts, they and their friend Baptistin Baille formed a trio, taking frequent trips to the country and working side by side. When Cézanne and Zola graduated high school, they kept in touch via letter, and they met back up in Paris in their mid-twenties, where Cézanne introduced Zola to the group of young visual artists with whom he would spend much of his young life.

Before Cézanne showed up in Paris, Zola was living a lonely life as a customs official; Cézanne essentially gifted Zola friends. But as Zola’s creative spark flourished and he made inroads into the literary world, Cézanne was stymied. He wanted to be friends with the young Impressionists, but they found him awkward and angry. According to Anka Mulhstein’s The Pen and the Brush, once in 1861, in the artists’ early twenties, Cézanne tried to paint a portrait of Zola and freaked out—getting so frustrated he started yelling, threatened to quit painting and leave Paris, and destroyed the canvas. Zola calmed him down and took him out to lunch. But it made an impact: wrote Zola, “Proving something to Cézanne would be like persuading the towers of Notre-Dame to dance a quadrille . . . he is made from one solid, immutable lump . . . Paul may have the genius to be a great painter, but he will never have the genius to become one. The least obstacle makes him despair.”

Zola’s observations about Cézanne stayed mercifully private—until he was moved by the spirit of novel-writing. In 1886, Zola published L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece), a novel about a struggling painter named Claude Lantier. Lantier desperately wants to paint a great painting, but is depressed by his lack of critical success; he has painting after painting rejected from salons. He becomes obsessed with revising the piece he thinks will be his masterpiece—but it makes him crazier, alienates his friends and family, and he ends up hanging himself. And—to make matters worse—only two of his old friends attend his funeral, and one is Sandoz, an obvious stand-in for Zola. Zola! No!

Cezanne didn’t love L’Œuvre, for, well, obvious reasons. Technically, it makes sense that Zola would choose this topic, as he spent his life surrounded by artists navigating their careers and personal practice; in fact, some of Lantier’s personal details were taken from other, non-Cezanne painters in the scene. But when Zola wrote the novel, he was well-known and wealthy from the success of L’Assommoir, the seventh book in his Les Rougon-Macquart series. It’s understandable that his long-time friend would be hurt by the tragic portrayal of someone striving for success when he himself already had it. Let that be a lesson: you’re allowed to write about your Art Friend, but don’t be surprised if that Art Friend deems you Bad. Thank goodness Zola didn’t have a group chat.

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