THE PEN AND THE BRUSH: How Passion for Art Shaped Nineteenth-Century French Novels, by Anka Muhlstein. Translated by Adriana Hunter. Other Press, 240 pp., $18.95.
Anka Muhlstein, a French writer who has lived in New York for decades, occupies a singular position in French letters, respected yet not entirely understood. Essayist, biographer, historian, cultural commentator, she stands at the juncture of French culture and “le monde anglo-saxon,” the Anglo-Saxon world, the category to which English speakers are invariably ascribed. There is about her French an unfussy directness that is unusual for erudite and engaging prose. She knows how to tell a story; her passion for her subject, along with a redoubtable mastery of the historical particulars, move things along in this short, pithy book.
The premise of “The Pen and the Brush” is simple in its contours, but complex in its elaboration. Muhlstein tells us that until the early 19th century, art in Europe (aside from the religious art in churches) was inaccessible to most of the population. The French Revolution changed all that by opening the royal collections to the public, and Napoleon spread that fever with his conquests. Once the genie was out of the bottle, the public became transfixed with the glories of its national collections, to which admission was free to all. So began a new era.
A deep and persistent conversation about art and its subjects soon ensued, an exchange that put Paris at the center of the cultural map for the better part of a century. Muhlstein shows convincingly how — and why — painters and writers were at the heart of the dialogue, and how the effects transformed the very idea of the novel as it assumed a modern form. Émile Zola could claim, “I have not only supported the Impressionists, I have translated them into literature.”
Muhlstein’s subjects are Zola, Balzac and Proust, with Maupassant and Huysmans appearing fleetingly. A good part of her text is devoted to discussions of these writers’ novels, and the ways in which great paintings inspired them: by moving them to create characters who were themselves painters; by allowing them to infuse their styles with the eye of a visual artist; and by including discussions and evaluations of paintings in their stories.
In nine brief and concentrated chapters, Muhlstein elaborates her premise with examples of the friendships and mutual inspirations among painters and writers: Zola and Cézanne; Hugo and Delacroix; Maupassant and Monet. In other hands these passages could easily have descended into the sterile prose of academic references, but Muhlstein has a way of infusing her accounts with enthusiasm, with quotes and anecdotes, with a deft wit that compels the reader to care about what she’s telling us. Describing the boyhood outings in Provence of Cézanne, Zola and a third friend, she captures a bond that was to resonate for decades: “They walked for hours; if it was hot they would take a dip in the river Arc . . . but mostly they talked — they talked endlessly. Years later, in 1866, in his dedication to Cézanne of his ‘Salon de 1866,’ Zola reminded his friend that ‘we have been talking about art and literature for the past ten years.’ ” The book is masterfully translated by Adriana Hunter, a considerable accomplishment given the subtleties of Muhlstein’s clear and distinctive voice in the original French.
Since so many references are visual, one could have hoped for larger full-color reproductions of some of these paintings: Manet’s revolutionary “Olympia,” Berthe Morisot’s sublime “Au balcon,” Monet’s “Le Bassin des nymphéas.” However, one of the measures of her achievement is that she manages to conjure, with words more than images, that long and giddy time when these paintings — commonplace to us in the present day — were the stuff of endless debate, controversy and excitement. Paintings mattered to a large part of the population, as did literature, and each art form lent new vigor and insights to its companion. By the early 20th century that was all gone, as if a thrilling party had folded its tent and moved elsewhere. The vestiges of that interlude still make the riches of Paris seem both singular and wondrous. The Louvre remains open to all, but it is free only one day a month for half the year.