The close relationships between artists and authors in 19th-century France is evidenced in the illustrious novels of Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Marcel Proust, J. K. Huysmans, and Guy de Maupassant. These novelists wrote about painting, created painters as characters, and physically described characters in the vein of their painter-friends. Anka Muhlstein, author of The Pen and The Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels, discusses how the intimate exchange between authors and artists influenced the literary current of the time.
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JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANKA MUHLSTEIN: Painting was a central preoccupation of French writers. They all either wrote about painting or created painters as characters.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with author Anka Muhlstein about her recent book titled The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels.
In her recent book The Pen and the Brush, Anka Muhlstein writes, “Opening a Balzac novel is like walking into a museum, but a museum where the artists (and sometimes even their models) often step out of their frames to come into the story.” Such a symbiotic relationship between writers and painters in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France is the subject of Muhlstein’s elegant, new book.
Prior to the nineteenth century, access to works art was largely restricted to the wealthy, who had entrée to private collections, and to the devout while attending religious services at churches, where works were typically valued for their illustrative and spiritual power as enhancements to worship. It was only after the French Revolution that the royal collections were opened to the public, and the Louvre was transformed into a museum. Visitors were stimulated and inspired by painters and their work, and French writers like Balzac, Zola, Huysmans, and Proust developed close relationships with contemporary artists, made artists the subjects of their novels, and often emulated their descriptive and dramatic stylistic effects.
Muhlstein is a prolific writer and has been twice honored by the French Academy for her biographies, one on her ancestor James de Rothschild and another on eighteenth century explorer Cavelier de La Salle.
I spoke with her on the telephone from her home in New York.
Tell us what attracted you to the idea of your book. How did you get to this subject and why did it come to your attention?
MUHLSTEIN: I started thinking about this book after I gave a talk at The Frick. The Frick asked me to talk about literary society at the time of Renoir. And I thought immediately of Proust, because you know, Proust once said that once Renoir had been recognized as the great painter he was, all the pretty girls in Paris started looking like Renoir. [Cuno laughs] And because actually, what happened is that the painter had altered the reality. And that interested me. And though much as I adore Proust, I realized that I had to enlarge the subject somewhat. And I started reading, if you want, up the century. And I realized, much to my astonishment that really, painting was a central preoccupation of French writers. They all either wrote about painting or created painters as characters. But really, all of them—Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Huysmans, the Goncourt brothers, Zola, Anatole France, Maupassant, up to Proust—and I started really wondering why. Because as you said, the same was not true of Russian literature. You know, the great Russians; there are no painters. English literature, you really have to wait till Virginia Woolf, you know, Dickens, Trollope, Middlemarch, there’s a very secondary character, but he could just as well be a musician. Americans, you have to wait till Henry James. Yes, there’s Nathanial Hawthorne, but—I mean, it’s not a central preoccupation. And this really puzzled me, until I realized that the reason had to lay in the fact that the Louvre had opened as a public museum very early—at the very end of the eighteenth century, but much before any other museum in Europe had opened. So this was really the start.
CUNO: Yeah, you mentioned, as you begin with the French Revolution and the nationalizing of the royal collections at the time, that in 1793, the Louvre opened its doors to the public as the Central Museum of Arts. It had a—
MUHLSTEIN: [over Cuno] That’s right.
CUNO: Had a name and a mission, which was to bring the collections that were once private, now public. What was that like? How can we identify the effect that they had on writers and the reading public in Paris during the 1790s? Was there commentary about what people saw for the first time and the excitement they felt in seeing it?
MUHLSTEIN: There was a huge excitement. I mean, you have to realize that the collection was huge. I mean, the royal collections were really quite amazing. And they were exposed in a sort of educational way. You know, they were not sort of haphazardly shown; they were really organized by school and chronologically, and there was a little booklet that that was distributed. And what was perhaps more important, there was a lot of publicity about it. Not only during the revolution, but perhaps even more so in the period following that culminated with Napoleon’s conquest in Europe, that translated by an amazing pillaging of art all over Europe. You know, whenever the French occupied a country, they brought back art. And that these works of art did not make a discreet entrance. There was a sort of parade when art was brought in. For instance, when the great Wedding at Cana, the Veronese, was brought from Venice to Paris, there was a parade. The parade was preceded by wild animals, which of course, [Cuno laughs] always attract a lot of people. Then, you know, the horses, the copper horses of the basilica, of the St. Mark’s basilica. Thirty chariots full of sculptures and paintings. And the smaller paintings were carried by the soldiers on their shoulders. So you can imagine the excitement of the populace. It was new that suddenly, art was completely in the air.
Now, writers, I mean, young people, who before the opening of the museum, would have had absolutely no opportunity to see art, or except in churches where you didn’t see art very well because they were so dark, well, suddenly, they could sort of walk around the Louvre, the Grande Galerie, at their own speed, at their own fantasy, and absorb it all. And you know, think of a young man like Balzac, who arrived in Paris when he was fifteen. He was not a very good—very good at school, and he played hooky all the time. And where did he go? He went to the Louvre.
And you can see when you read his novels, how he had absorbed the collection. But I think perhaps even more important, it ga—and Balzac was not the only one of course—but so what was important is that the young writers, the young artists, sort of earned a common vocabulary with painters. They suddenly were speaking about the same thing. That was very important.
CUNO: Was it important, do you think in the context of the Napoleonic victories in the collecting of works of art and bringing them to Paris, in the first instance, that it was confirming of a new national post-revolutionary identity, this sense of a kind of greatness of the state and the greatness of the nation, and confirmation that art played a critical role in that great triumph?
MUHLSTEIN: Yes, and then perhaps more important, that art was really for the people. You know, whenever they brought back, the justification was it was the art was not going to be reserved for the pleasure of the tyrants; it was going to be given to the people. And you know, it sounds a bit ridiculous because it’s a sort of [a] pompous way of speaking. But on the other hand, when you think that in England or in Germany, I mean, you could visit great mansions where there was wonderful art; you could go to private galleries, if you were introduced, if you were recommended.
So the sort of poor guy who arrives from the provinces had absolutely no chance of seeing anything. I’m always amused by the fact that in Vienna, where in principle, the collections of the imperial palace were open to everybody on the condition that the visitor would have clean shoes. [Cuno laughs] Clean shoes? Why clean shoes? Well, clean shoes because it proved that you had enough money either to hire a cab or to have your private carriage. So it was, in a way, a rather subtle way of choosing your public. And you know, the same was true in England. I mean, if you wanted to go and visit the collections of the duke of Devonshire, you couldn’t just show up. You just had to have somebody vouch for you.
CUNO: Right, right.
MUHLSTEIN: So I think that was important in France—it was for everybody.
CUNO: And I think I’m right about this, too, that it was the dawn of the Romantic era and there was a great emulation of individual genius, and that one saw this individual genius at work not only in writing, but in painting and in music, for example. But that the attraction between writing and painting went both ways. That is, that French novelists wrote about painters and painting, and French painters painted pictures inspired by literary texts, like Classical literature, the Bible, Goethe’s Faust, Sir Walter Scott, Byron and more. In other words, there’s kind of a shared community of genius, respect for genius, one to the next.
MUHLSTEIN: Well, yes, of course, because there is also an explosion of great painters in the nineteenth century. But that also is, in a way, thanks to the revolution. You know, before the revolution, only artists that were members of the academy could exhibit officially their work. So if you saw works, they were the works of academic artists.
After the revolution, that changed. And the exhibitions were held in the Louvre, before the revolution, twice a year. And after the revolution, they continued, but the difference was that the artist did not have to be a member of the academy. It was open to everybody. There was a jury, otherwise, they would have been absolutely swamped. But the number of artists who could actually show, exhibit, went from a few hundreds to a few thousands. And so that makes a huge difference. And those salons attracted an amazing number of people. They were extraordinarily popular. In all the novels of the period, you have descriptions of those crowds, those throngs. You had to fight your way to go and see the paintings. And that was very important, also.
You know, think of one thing. The National Gallery in London opened in 1824, with thirty-eight paintings. [Cuno chuckles] So that’s not a lot.
CUNO: [he laughs] That’s not a lot.
MUHLSTEIN: No, but you know, think about it. [Cuno: Yeah] It makes a huge, huge difference. So of course, people were not as excited about art in England as they were in Paris.
CUNO: Yeah. Okay, we should begin now with the authors that you highlight, beginning with Balzac. And I was struck by the quotation you had in the book from his work, The Daughter of Eve, where he defines his writing in very explicit painterly terms. He writes, “The differences in tone, nuance, color, and outline, which differentiate the six parts of this work, might at some later stage, be noticed or appreciated.” There’s a clear painterliness about his writing of that sentence, a kind of concentration on the subtleties of the craft of writing, as if those subtleties were shared between the writer and the painter. He’s looking at making a sentence and setting a stage for action in a kind of self-conscious way, the way a painter would.
MUHLSTEIN: Yes, well, painting was a sort of inspiration for Balzac, really. What also struck me with Balzac is that he was the first novelist to really describe physically, people. You know, before that, you know, there was a beautiful woman in a novel, you just said, oh, well, she was a heavenly creature. In La Princesse de Clèves, she was the most beautiful woman of the court. You don’t have an impression of what she really looked like. But Balzac describes, you know, the complexion, the hair, the hands.
And very often, he says, “it would take a painter to do justice.” And he would give the name of the painter. So there is a sort of osmosis between the painter and the writer here. He says, “she looked like a Raphael; he looked like a Rembrandt.” So he sort of forces the reader to have a very strong image of what he is describing.
CUNO: It made me think of Flaubert, about whom you don’t write as much as you write about Balzac and the others. But Flaubert, who one considered a realist author, but who was very conscious, and professed a consciousness about, the rendering of sentence and structure and words in the right order, and the precision of the tools of his craft, as it were. On the very same terms as you describe Balzac, the very same terms as a painter might a painting. The sense of a common recognition that the making the something, of a work of art, involved the discrete elements of style in the making of it.
MUHLSTEIN: Actually, Flaubert also said, “I want to write as if I were shortsighted.” There’s the sort of image of vision that is so important, also. So it’s completely mingled. It’s a curious thing. But it’s very strong in Balzac. And Balzac could be inspired by a painting. For instance, he saw a painting representing Napoleon on the battlefield. And Napoleon was standing next to a heap of corpses. And it gave Balzac the idea of writing a novella called Le Colonel Chabert, where the poor colonel is buried under a heap of dead bodies, and it takes him a while to sort of claw his way back. So it’s literally the painting that gave him the idea of the novella.
CUNO: Well, tell us about his work The Unknown Masterpiece.
MUHLSTEIN: Ah, that’s quite an extraordinary novella. It’s curious because, you know, generally, the setting in Balzac is contemporary. It’s always nineteenth century society. And there, it’s much more abstract, because he set his story in the seventeenth century. And he has a fictional painter called Frenhofer, who is friends with two real painters, Nicolas Poussin, who is perhaps one of the greatest French painters, and a painter called Frans Pourbus, who was Marie de Medici’s court painter. And it’s the story of a genius. Frenhofer is a genius. And his struggle is extraordinarily painful. He meets with his two friends, and he tells them that he has been working for ten years on a painting that he has shown nobody. And he is completely devastated because he lost his model. And Poussin offers him his own model on the condition that he will be allowed the see the painting. And the old painter accepts, and is absolutely astonished by the beauty of the model.
He finishes the painting very quickly, and asks Pourbus and Poussin to come and look at it. And they enter the studio and they are completely appalled. They see a wall of paint, a chaos of colors, a sort of unbelievable mix, mingle, and just one foot, one perfect, delightful foot that emerges from this disorder. And they are completely speechless.
And Frenhofer understands immediately they don’t get it. They don’t catch it. And he tries to explain to them that lines don’t exist in nature, that he has made the lines disappear so of course, there’s a sort of blurring of the reality. And he says, “Of course, reality and art are not interchangeable; they’re two completely different things. And the woman that I have represented is not a creature; she is a creation.” But still, he is faced with the bewilderment of these two artists. And he’s so disenchanted that he sets fire to his studio. He commits suicide and his work is destroyed. What is, of course, extraordinary in the novel is that the description of Frenhofer’s painting sort of seems like the description, you know, of a very contemporary painting. He could be describing a Jackson Pollock. I mean, there’s a sort of unbelievable leap of imagination taken by Balzac. I mean, closer to his time, he sort of seemed to imagine the Impressionists, sort of thirty years hence, because that’s exactly what the Impressionists did. They blurred the line. You see an Impressionist landscape, it’s not sort of detailed, the way a landscape, you know, a Middle Ages or a seventeenth century landscape is. It’s different, completely different. And so Balzac seems to have imagined what could happen in the evolution of modern art.
And what I find very touching is that the novella was absolutely adored by later painters. For instance, Cézanne. Cézanne did not read the novel, but one of his painter friends read it to him, Émile Bernard, and he said, “While I was reading, suddenly Cézanne got up, and pointing to himself, showed that Frenhofer was he.” [Cuno chuckles] And later on, in an interview, Cézanne said, “You know, it’s horrible. When I paint, I look. And I look so intently I have the feeling that my eyes are bleeding. Surely, I must be a bit crazy, like Frenhofer.”
It was very, very strong. And of course, Picasso illustrated the novella.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah.
MUHLSTEIN: And by a curious twist, Picasso moved in a studio, rue des Grands-Augustins, where actually, Balzac had set the story of Frenhofer. And Picasso was thrilled. He was extraordinarily happy to move, in a way, in Frenhofer’s studio. So that’s the genius of Balzac. I mean, he was a realist with an unbelievable imagination.
CUNO: Yeah, when I read it for the first time, it reminded me of Gericault, or even of Delacroix, this sense of kind of fragmentation of human form within the context of a flurry of color and light and so forth. And also, I’m thinking of Balzac and his friendship with the caricature publisher Charles Philipon, who was the principle publisher of the satirist Daumier. How does a perceptive observer of humanity’s foibles like Daumier fit into your picture of French artists. I know that there were mutual friendships among them.
MUHLSTEIN: Daumier had a certain influence on the style of Balzac, certainly of Maupassant, where suddenly Maupassant describes people with very short sentences, or even fragments of sentences, exactly the way a caricature is done. You know, just stressing one character, the appearance of a foot, the appearance of an arm. And the sort of brevity suddenly of the style, which is very new in that time, comes, I think, from the caricature.
CUNO: Next, you introduce us to Émile Zola, the childhood friend and sometimes rival of Cézanne. How does Zola fit into your story?
MUHLSTEIN: Ah, Zola. Well, you see, Balzac didn’t know any painter. So I think that was an advantage. He could write about painters, and he certainly did, he had many more fictional painters than writers. He was not interested in writers in fiction. while Zola had just one fictional painter. But Zola knew painters. His best friend from school was Cézanne. And they remained friends all their life.
They were raised in Aix-en-Provence, in the South of France, and they both came up to Paris, as we say in France, ils sont monte à Paris, together. And Zola had a hard time. He didn’t have a penny, he didn’t have a good job, and he didn’t know anybody. The only people he knew were Cézanne’s friends, and Cézanne was friendly with all the painters of the period. And so Zola was really part of that milieu.
And he started his career as an art critic, defending very, very vigorously, his friends the Naturalists, as they were called then, and then the Impressionists. But when he wrote about a painter, it was so precise. And the painters seemed to recognize themselves. His painter is a man called Claude Lantier. Physically, he has a lot of Cézanne. He’s dressed like Cézanne, he has the bad character of Cézanne. And the art is not Cézanne’s at all, but it is described very precisely.
And when the fictional painter shows a painting at the salon, it is Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. So Zola did not invent much; he described paintings that he knew, and he attributed them to his fictional painter. Well, all this with the result that the painters were furious. And Monet said, “Well, you know, it’s a shame that you did it. Everybody’s going to recognize us.” And as in the story, the painter actually also commits suicide. Monet said, “We all are going to appear as losers.” [Cuno chuckles] So poor Zola, who had defended them with such verve, with such talent, was suddenly sort of brushed away by these people that he admired so much. It’s the danger of realism.
CUNO: Yeah, yea. Now, how did Zola come to meet the poets like Baudelaire or painters like Manet? I’m thinking of Manet’s great painting of this courtesan named Nana, who after all was the title of a book by Zola. What were the circumstances of their meeting and working in the middle of the nineteenth century?
MUHLSTEIN: That also is quite interesting, because Zola and his painter friends share the same subjects, very precisely. And Nana is a case in point. I mean, the famous Manet Nana, you know, the wonderful little, saucy little courtesan with the old gentleman in the back looking at her, at her posterior with the eye of a connoisseur.
Well, Nana, the name comes from the vicious little girl that Zola invented in The Drinking Den. She is the daughter of Gervaise, and in this first novel she’s quite young. But you know immediately that she is not going to start working in a laundry like her mother; she’s going to live off her looks. So Manet paints Nana. And then Zola ends the story of Nana in another novel called Nana. So there’s a sort of back and forth there. They really shared the subject.
But you know, he also shared subjects with Degas, for instance, Zola. In The Drinking Den, most of the part takes place in a laundry. And there’s not only the washerwoman, but the ironers. And you know, Degas did those marvelous series of washerwomen and ironers. And Zola actually wrote to Degas saying, “You know, I literally wrote my pages on the ironers looking at your painting.” And this is fascinating, because normally you would think that Degas’ painting would have illustrated the novel. That’s the way, generally, things happen. Well, here, it’s the opposite. It is the writer that takes the inspiration from the painting, and very precisely. And that’s—
CUNO: [over Muhlstein] Yeah, there’s so many relations and the interrelations among them all. And it made me think of Baudelaire, for example, and Baudelaire’s relationship to Manet and how it was that you had to make decisions about what to include and what to include to fit your book. How did you come to make these decisions, and do you have any regrets about leaving any particular artist out or any particular writer out?
MUHLSTEIN: Well, in a way, I regret a little bit that I didn’t do Baudelaire and Mallarmé. They were more different to do, because their writings on art are real journalism pieces, really; they’re not novels. They’re not fictional. Because that also is new and very particular to France, that all these writers—I mean, really all of them—wrote about art in such an extraordinary way. For instance, Huysmans, Zola, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, they all wrote art criticism. And that, I regret a little bit.
CUNO: Yeah, it made me think of that very touching and moving portrait of Baudelaire’s funeral by Manet. The sense that there were these signature figures in their world that were protean in character and they celebrated these kinds of protean characters. Now—but I want to get to near the end of the book, because you have written so beautifully on Proust before, and you bring all of that command to our understanding of Proust at the end of your book. How does he fit into your story?
MUHLSTEIN: Well, Proust first fit in my story because I think he is the last writer who really—how should I say? You know, there’s a sort of movement of writers towards painters. And I think that in a way, he ends this movement. I think that you could argue that there’s still writers and artists who are very connected later on in the twentieth century. But I think not as strongly, not as precisely as the one I talk about. And Proust really ends this movement.
What I found extraordinary in Proust is that—and in a way, it’s a little bit like Balzac—is that he uses the painting to describe his character. I mean, all readers of Proust know that one of the main characters, Swann, who’s a real art lover and an art collector, falls in love with a courtesan, really. Not at first sight, but once he realizes that she looks like a Botticelli. So the crystallization of the love comes from the work of art. So there is Odette transformed in this Botticelli sort of ethereal creature. And then of course, Odette, the courtesan, turns out not to be so charming. She turns cold, she makes Swann suffer, she proves very grasping, very interested. And suddenly, he changes. He sees her as the Salome of Gustave Moreau, the Salome, you know, with the head of Saint John Baptist. And a Salome bejeweled, cold, terribly venal and wicked.
And so it’s really through the image of Botticelli and Moreau that the reader gets this sort of brutal feeling of the change in the character. So he uses painting amazingly well in the psychological evocation of his characters.
CUNO: You talk a lot about the character Elstir as he might be related to Whistler and Wislaire. And you say that we never see the anxieties that he has as a painter. We never actually even see his work, [Muhlstein: Yes] as a painter.
MUHLSTEIN: I mean, in that way, Proust is very different from Balzac, from Zola, from Maupassant. He never shows the painter sort of struggling with his art, wondering who’s going to buy his painting, choosing his brush. I mean, all the other ones are very, very precise in their description of the paint. Proust is much more abstract. Actually, you never see Elstir painting. Just briefly once, he sort of—he receives the visits of the narrator and he says, “Oh, I just want to finish this. You can poke around the studio while I finish.” But you never see that.
What is interesting in the character is that he proves the mentor of the narrator. You know, you could consider that In Search of Lost Time is the story of a vocation, how the narrator becomes a writer. And who introduces him to the world of art but the painter. And it’s striking because Proust created three great artists. A writer, Bergotte; a musician, Vinteuil; and a painter, Elstir. And it is the painter who shows the narrator that the real artist is the man who knows how to look. And to look with what he calls a virgin eye. You must sort of make abstraction of what you think you are looking at, and just look. And that is what is going to make you a writer, and what makes Elstir a great painter.
CUNO: Now, near the end of your book, you quote Virginia Woolf saying that, “We’re all modern paintings to be destroyed. A critic of the twenty-fifth century would be able to deduce from the works of Proust alone, the existence of Matisse, Cézanne, Derain, and Picasso. He would be able to say that with these books before him, that painters with the highest originality and power must be covering canvas after canvas, squeezing tubes after tubes in the room next door.” And you say the same could be said of the French novelists before him, that painting and literature had been so inextricably linked for over a century. Do you think that’s still true about painters and novelists in the twentieth century in Paris?
MUHLSTEIN: I don’t see it as clearly as in the nineteenth century. I mean, painting became abstract, it was much more difficult to—I think that the two arts have taken divergent paths, in a way. Though I have to say that going back to Proust and Picasso, it’s not obvious, of course. And it’s not obvious for the very good reason, is that Proust didn’t understand Picasso’s painting. I mean, he went once to the studio and said—he came back and he told his housekeeper, “I saw this Spanish painter. He’s doing something called Cubism. I have to admit I didn’t understand it at all.” And yet in his style, in his way of writing, if you consider that Picasso, you know, when you have these images of women that you see both from profile and from the front, Proust does the same thing in his writing. He describes something from different point of views, which is exactly what Picasso does. But he was not influenced, because he didn’t see the Picassos. So you might think that there is something in the air that explained both of them. I don’t see that in the twentieth century. I know that for instance, Hemmingway said that he learned so much looking at the Cézanne, but it’s not as clear, it’s not as openly obvious as with my writers.
CUNO: Well, you make such a convincing case about the importance of this mutual relationship in the nineteenth century. It’s great to know that this book, so beautifully written, could’ve come from a single lecture at The Frick. What is your next lecture going to be? And what book [Muhlstein chuckles] might derive from your next lecture?
MUHLSTEIN: Well, for the moment, I’m preparing something completely different. I’m writing the introduction for the new edition of Chateaubriand’s memoir for the New York Review of Books. [Cuno: Oh] And so—well, that’s perhaps also—I mean, that’s a great, great writer. Painting was not so important to Chateaubriand. But he was a man of the eighteenth century, I think, in that regard. But that’s what I’m doing right now.
CUNO: Well, we look forward to that, and we thank you much for the book you’ve written, and thank you for sharing that book with us, The Pen and the Brush: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth Century French Novels. So thank you, Anka, very much.
MUHLSTEIN: Well, thank you very much. It’s been a great, great pleasure to talk with you.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
ANKA MUHLSTEIN: Painting was a central preoccupation of French writers. They all either wrote ab...