By Luciano Migliaccio
The painting Paul Alexis Reading a Manuscript to Zolafeatures Zola at his home on Rue Condamine welcoming one of his first admirers, Paul Alexis (1847-1901), a journalist, novelist, and relentless defender of Impressionism and neo-Impressionism. The canvas was found in storage at Zola’s home in Médan, following the death of his wife in 1927. Presumably it was painted between September 1869, when Paul Alexis arrived in Paris, and August 1870, when Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola left the city for the south of France. A private collection in Zurich, Switzerland, includes another canvas showing a figure reading at Zola’s home that, according to Gowing (in Cézanne: The Early Years, 1987/88, p. 156), is supposedly datable between 1867 and 1869. Three preliminary drawings are known to have been made in connection with this last painting: one in the Sir Kenneth Clark Collection and the other two misplaced. Wayne Andersen pointed out in these drawings the evolution of Cézanne’s composition informed by models of Dutch interior decorative painting, such as De Hooch. The picture in the Masp Collection features a radically different situation and style, with composition organized horizontally, rather than vertically; figures seated on the floor outside, in an arrangement that resembles Manet’s paintings; large areas of flat color design, and the choice of colors. Perhaps Zola himself contributed the idea for the composition, given that he had always wished to found a school and since his youth had cultivated gatherings of his artistic and scholarly friends – Cézanne, Valabrégue, Solari, and Alexis – all of them from the Aix region. Paul Alexis nurtured a great admiration for Zola; in 1882, he dedicated an important study to the leader of naturalism. Cézanne left this painting unfinished, possibly because of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, that forced him to seek refuge in Provence. Zola’s pose resembles that of an Oriental despot (Howard) or a philosopher. His head and torso reveal the texture of the canvas and the free drawing that was a basic element in Cézanne’s compositions. Many forms visible in the finished parts of the painting were meant to be modified to meet the demands of the artist, who improvised directly on the canvas, starting from an initial idea.