Seksisme en realisme: een lezing van Émile Zola’s Het meesterwerk

Algemeen Nederlands Tijdschrift voor Wijsbegeerte 115 (4):423-438 (2023)
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Genderism and Realism. A Reading of Émile Zola’s The Masterpiece Does sexual morality play a role in our perception of reality? This contribution explores the rise of modernity as a radical change of perception. This is done by reading an 1886 novel on painting, Émile Zola’s L’Oeuvre (The Masterpiece). The Masterpiece is a novel that meticulously explores the relationship between reality and representation in which the genderism implications become clear. Zola comments implicitly on the paintings of Éduoard Manet, on which naked women are depicted without any symbolism, which makes them ‘scandalous’. Contrary to Zola’s essayistic work on naturalism, the novel makes clear that the revolution of ‘naturalism’ in painting takes place within a gendered framework. The nakedness of the female model, which represented in the first half of the nineteenth century the highest ideal of beauty in a predominantly male culture, becomes the nakedness of reality, understood as a transgression of a gendered moral order. In The Masterpiece, painting comes to nothing, depicted by the suicide of the painter who fails to create his masterpiece. In doing so, Zola bids farewell to his initial enthusiasm for Manet’s work, and in the form of a novel he describes the ultimate consequence of naturalism, namely that ever-changing life cannot be depicted at all. In this article, The Masterpiece is interpreted as an ‘iconoclastic’ novel, in which the real protagonist is Christine, who resists Claude’s gaze fixed on her as a model. In doing so, Zola creates a triumph of literary naturalism over painting, but does not get beyond an essentialist genderism; the difference between man (representation of reality) and woman (presence of real life).



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Ruud Welten
Erasmus University Rotterdam

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