|Edouard Manet, Portrait of Emile Zola,1868|
Emile Zola was an influential author of the naturalism literary school. He was very interested in the changes taking place in society due to industrialization and the second empire in France. A great supporter of Manet's, Zola actually published a pamphlet 'A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet' emphasizing the 'truth' of his art which, Zola insisted, aside from the formal and technical qualities, was the truth of "the contemporary girl we meet everyday on the pavements."1.
The Portrait of Emile Zola is a realistically rendered portrait by Manet. In this painting, the author is shown sitting at his desk with the symbols of his trade, ink and pen, reading what is probably History of Paintings which attests to his interest in art. There is a blue manuscript next to his books, on his desk, behind the quill, which probably represents the pamphlet he wrote about Manet. There are three prints hanging behind his desk on the right corner that identify his preferences in art - there is a Japanese print, a print of Manet's Olympia partly covering a print of Velazquez' The Feast of Bacchus. Manet has visualized his admiration for Zola by painting Olympia as looking at Zola, admiring him.
There was an intense interest in Japanese Art at this time and both Manet and Zola admired Japanese prints greatly. In 1850, after 200 years of seclusion Japan opened it's doors and the Westerners that became exposed to their culture were fascinated. The furor that followed was called Japonisme. The Japanese screen on the left side behind Zola, also references his interest.
Contemporary artists were influenced by the subject matter, composition and style of Japanese prints. They depicted everyday scenes, using juxtaposition of patterns, great attention to detail and solid colors laid down next to each other separated by an outline without any transitions. Zola said that Manet should be compared to the Japanese woodcut prints in his use of similar techniques.
In this friendship portrait, Manet portrays a realistic depiction of Emile Zola giving us the inner essence of the writer with his interests and qualities painted in his own unique style. Zola's words sums up Manet's ascend into the art world perfectly "A young painter has obeyed, in a very straightforward manner, his own inclinations concerning vision and understanding; he has begun to paint in a way which is contrary to the sacred rules taught in schools Thus, he has produced original works..."2
1. Emile Zola, 'Edouard Manet', p.554
2. Emile Zola, 'Edouard Manet', p.555