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Le démon, le démiurgique et le commerce dans l’art: La double lecture de L'Œuvre de Zola

By Sarah Wolberg


This thesis is a study of the sociological approach to the notion of artistic success and the complication of that vision of success in Émile Zola’s L'Œuvre (1886), a roman à clef that reproduces the development of impressionism in nineteenth-century France. L'Œuvre focuses on Claude Lantier, a painter whose characterization and avant-gardism recall Zola’s friends Cézanne and Manet. The sociology of art proposed by Hippolyte Taine, Pierre Bourdieu, and Arnold Hauser analyzes the artist’s relation to art-world institutions—including the Salon de peinture et sculpture, l’École des beaux-arts, and the art market—and concludes that the idealistic avant-gardist rejects those institutions’ influence to instead produce a revolutionary art, an art whose success is defined by the bourgeois and academic opposition it faces—a mark of innovation and avant-gardism. Claude’s paintings face this institutional rejection and he further distances himself from these commercial and academic institutions by rejecting their approval. The sociological reading of L'Œuvre concludes that Claude’s artistic success—separate from his commercial failure—is a product of his pure, idealistic rejection of the institutions that maintain the hierarchies of the art world. A deeper study of L'Œuvre reveals other factors influencing artistic production and success, including the artist’s demiurgic compulsion—the desire to reproduce the whole of the world in a single masterpiece. The demiurgic compulsion affects Zola as well as Claude and leads to inevitable failure because of the impossibility of this synthesis of the world in a single work. Another factor complicating artistic success is genius. Claude cannot materialize his genius in his paintings, which always fall short of their conception in his mind. Zola pathologizes Claude’s genius and his anguish at not being able to consummate his artistic vision, leading to monomania and the artist’s eventual suicide in front of his unfinished masterpiece. Finally, Zola complicates Claude’s absolutist condemnation of the intersection of art and commerce when he advises young artists not to eschew commercial art. Zola exemplifies this compromise in his own career, where literary innovation was accompanied by popularity and monetary success. I argue that L'Œuvre’s portrait of artistic production does not reflect a purely idealistic struggle against commercialism, but acknowledges the complexity of the artist’s struggle with his own psychology and his concept of pure art

Year: 2015
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