Paul Cézanne

Paul Alexis Reading a Manuscript to Zola, 1869-70

  • Author:
    Paul Cézanne
  • Bio:
    Aix-en-Provence, França, 1839-Aix-en-Provence, França ,1906
  • Title:
    Paul Alexis Reading a Manuscript to Zola
  • Date:
  • Medium:
    Óleo sobre tela
  • Dimensions:
    133,5 x 163 x 3 cm
  • Credit line:
    Doação Congresso Nacional, 1952
  • Object type:
  • Inventory number:
  • Photography credits:
    João Musa


The characters depicted in Paul Alexis Reading a Manuscript to Zola, by French painter Paul Cézanne, have something in common. Like the artist himself, the men in the painting and in its title were originally from Aix-en-Provence, a city in southern France, and lived in Paris when the painting was made. Paul Cézanne was a childhood friend of Émile Zola (1840-1902), a celebrated writer from the second half of the 19th century who became well known for Germinal (1885) — a realist novel that portrays the harsh life conditions of workers in a coal mine. In Paris, Paul Alexis (1847-1901), who was also a writer and great admirer of Zola, began to frequent his house, where the scene in the painting takes places. The picture was found in Zola’s basement in 1927, after the death of his wife. It is likely that Cézanne was not able to finish it due to the Franco-Prussian War, which led the artist and the writer to flee to their hometown. Zola’s clothes, as well as the seat which he is leaning against, were left as a draft, with traces but no applied paint. Several parts of the painting show the marks of his brushstrokes, creating striking stains of color. It is also noteworthy that Alexis’s jacket merges with the chair’s backrest. In this period, Cézanne used a darker palette than in his most well known landscapes and still lifes. This is one of five of Paul Cézanne’s paintings in the MASP collection. As a key work in his oeuvre, it is often requested on loan for Cézanne exhibitions worldwide. Recently, it traveled to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2017 and to the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 2018.

— Laura Cosendey, assistent curator, MASP, 2021

By Luciano Migliaccio
The painting Paul Alexis Reading a Manuscript to Zola features 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.

— Luciano Migliaccio, 1998

Source: Luiz Marques (org.), Catalogue of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo: MASP, 1998. (new edition, 2008).

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