New York Review of Books
April 6, 2017
You see her from a distance, at the end of a long enfilade of rooms. As you approach, you notice that she is already turned toward you. She is in her fortified underwear: a light blue bodice, white slip, light blue stockings; in her raised right hand, a powder puff like a vast carnation. To the left, over a chair, is the blue dress she will soon put on. To the right, though you might not at first observe him, is an impatient, mustachioed figure in evening dress, his top hat still—or already—on his head. But once again, you are aware that she has eyes only for you.
She is Manet’s Nana, in the Hamburg Kunsthalle, benefiting from a recent rehang that makes her even more of a cynosure. Nana is the courtesan protagonist of Zola’s 1880 novel of the same name, and you might reasonably assume that Manet’s painting is, apart from anything else, one of the great book illustrations. But it is more interesting than this. Nana first appeared as a minor character in Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877). Manet spotted her there, and painted his portrait of her. When Zola saw it, he realized that, yes indeed, she was worth a novel in her own right. So, far from Manet illustrating Zola, what actually happened was that Zola was illustrating Manet.
The close friendship, interaction, and parallelism between writers and artists in nineteenth-century France are the subject of Anka Muhlstein’s The Pen and the Brush. Balzac put more painters into his novels than he did writers, constantly name-checking artists and using them as visual shorthand (old men looked like Rembrandts, innocent girls like Raphaels). Zola, as a young novelist, lived much more among painters than writers, and told Degas that when he needed to describe laundresses he had simply copied from the artist’s pictures. Victor Hugo was a fine Gothicky-Romantic artist in his own right, and an innovative one too, mixing onto his palette everything from coffee grounds, blackberry juice, and caramelized onion to spit and soot, not to mention what his biographer Graham Robb tactfully terms “even less respectable materials.”
Flaubert’s favorite living painter (also that of Huysmans’s Des Esseintes) was Gustave Moreau, and his Salammbô is like a massive, bejeweled, wall-threatening Salon exhibit—this being both the novel’s strength and its weakness. Baudelaire, Zola, Goncourt, Maupassant, and Huysmans were excellent art critics (Monet thought Huysmans the best of all). The subject is enormous, and might threaten to go off in every direction. What about photography? And book illustration? And sculpture? What about poets and pictures, both real and imaginary? Anka Muhlstein wisely limits herself to prose writers, and to five who speak to her most clearly: Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and—a slight chronological cheat—Proust. The result is a personal, compact, intense book that provokes both much warm nodding and occasional friendly disagreement.