The Pen and the Brush

by Anka Muhlstein, Other Press, 14.99

‘I have not only supported the Impressionists,” the young Emile Zola boasted, “I have translated them into literature.” Zola had just burst on to the literary scene with his first novel, Thérèse Raquin, a masterpiece of dark realism. But it was in the milieu of artists that he felt most comfortable. And he wasn’t the only one.

Subtitled “How Passion for Art Shaped 19th-century French Novels”, Anka Muhlstein’s book charts the curious intersection of cultures that would ultimately result in both the modern novel and modern art.

Painters and paintings were not a major concern of 18th-century French literature, yet the novels of the generation that grew up during and after the Restoration – Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Huysmans and Proust – are teeming with art. English, German and Russian fiction of the 19th century has no interest in painters, which leads Muhlstein to ask why this distinct shift occurred in France at that particular time and not anywhere else.

Proximity is one answer. Artists and writers mingled freely in the bohemian enclaves of Paris, often sharing flats and conversation. But more important, Muhlstein says, is the new way of perceiving art that came into being after the French Revolution.

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