Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1569
Visitors to the Paris zoo are startled one day by a young man, who seems to be a guide, pointing out landmarks in the magnificent view of the city below in terms that might be used to describe the zoo itself. The young man, Anatole Bazoche, delights in such pranks; he is studying art at Langibout’s studio and keeps everyone there in a constant uproar. The son of a stolid bourgeois widow, he has become an artist over her protests; although he has talent, he is content to dissipate it in bright, superficial paintings. His gift for farce symbolizes the age, which, disillusioned and effete, laughs at everything. Art has become restless eclecticism, turning increasingly to a romanticism that is essentially literary.
In the same art studio as Anatole are Chassagnol, a compulsive talker who hopes for a new vision; Garnotelle, a quiet little peasant who tries earnestly to follow rules for good painting; and Naz de Coriolis. Of Italian and Creole descent, Coriolis is feared for his temper and pride and envied for his money. Caring for nothing but his painting, he remains aloof from all but Anatole.
Coriolis becomes dissatisfied with the bohemian world in which he is living, filled as it is with talk and pranks, and he decides to travel in the Near East for a time. As he and Anatole sit talking before his departure, a woman brings her little girl to his door and asks if he needs a model. Captivated by the child’s extraordinary beauty, he catches her up in his arms. As he swings her down again, she pulls his gold watch and chain to the floor. Laughing, he lets her keep them.
Garnotelle, who has left the studio, wins the Prix de Rome for his careful, if mediocre, academic art. Cut off from funds by his mother, Anatole experiences a series of ups and downs; he takes on any hack jobs that come his way until his uncle invites him to accompany him to Marseilles and from there to Constantinople. Unfortunately, the uncle becomes jealous of Anatole’s charm and leaves him in Marseilles. After helping care for the sick during a cholera epidemic, Anatole joins a circus. He meets Coriolis, who has inherited great wealth; Coriolis is now on his way back to Paris, and he generously invites Anatole to share a studio with him. Once settled in Paris, the two begin painting. Coriolis has vowed never to marry; he feels that marriage and fatherhood destroy an artist because they attach creativity to a lower order of things. He knows, too, that he needs even more discipline than most, owing to his lazy Creole temperament.
Coriolis’s first paintings, fruits of his travels, are not favorably received. Volatile and filled with light, they do not conform to the fashionable critical notions of Near Eastern landscapes. Naïvely astonished, Coriolis discovers that the critics and the public prefer Garnotelle’s sterile work. Determined to prove that he is more than an exotic colorist, he begins painting nudes.
During his search for a model, Coriolis sees a young Jewish woman, Manette Salomon, and, through Anatole, arranges for her services. Manette is absolute perfection; her body has a pliant beauty that seems the quintessence of the feminine. They become lovers, and Coriolis, obsessed by her beauty, wants to keep her all to himself; Manette, however, is a true Parisian bohemian and wants only to be free. Her frankness and ignorance delight him; her serenity gives him peace. Once, in his jealousy, he follows her, but she goes only to the synagogue. This experience makes him suddenly aware of her Jewishness—a strange, foreign element akin to something he found in his travels. One day, he recognizes a watch chain that Manette has, and he realizes that she is the child he admired so long ago. She too remembers her benefactor, and she vows tenderly never to leave him.
Coriolis’s painting of Manette, which captures her glorious flesh tones, is a huge success, and its purchase by a museum restores his faith in himself. Feeling that she too is now famous, Manette begins to change: The praise of the picture Coriolis has painted of her raises a feeling of pride in her that is almost love, whereas Coriolis, like most artists, thinks of his mistress as a charming, necessary little animal.
Soon afterward, when he falls ill, Manette nurses him back to strength, never leaving his side. To speed his convalescence, Coriolis goes with Manette and Anatole to a little inn in the country near Fontainebleau. Manette, completely city bred, is delighted by the strange new world and plunges into it eagerly. Coriolis finds nature soothing and inspiring for a time, but he grows bored and misses the comforts of his studio. Anatole luxuriates in the freshness of the countryside and falls under its spell, but he enlivens his stay by tricking, mocking, and entertaining the other guests at the inn.
Manette, accepted by this bourgeois group as Coriolis’s wife, finds her new status attractive, and in her ignorance she believes this bourgeois world worth entering. Then a new arrival who senses her true relationship to Coriolis snubs her. Hurt and resentful, Manette wants to leave the inn. The three move to a small house near that of the landscapist Crescent and his wife, an ample, friendly woman who takes Manette to her heart. The two young artists learn from the old peasant Crescent, but Madame Crescent cools toward Manette after finding out that she is Jewish; Madame Crescent also senses (partly through peasant superstition, partly through a kind of animal instinct) something hidden, profound, and destructive in the young woman’s nature. Shortly thereafter, Coriolis, who cannot agree with the moralistic basis of Crescent’s art, decides to return to Paris.
After their return to Paris, Manette becomes pregnant, and her body takes on new languor. When Coriolis’s son is born, Manette acquires a new outlook on life. The carefree bohemian has become a mother, and her stubborn pride and greed for success come to the fore.
Coriolis begins to work on a new kind of painting, an attempt to create art through the truth of life. He does not intend to imitate photography but rather to make of the harmonies available in painting a re-creation unfolding the inner realities of contemporary life. The two paintings he creates, particularly one that depicts a wedding, arouse derision, and Manette, seeing his failure, cools toward him.
Coriolis dotes on his son, watches him play, and sketches him. As time passes, however, he becomes unable to work and sinks into inactivity and despair. He cannot understand a world that neglects him in favor of Garnotelle, who is now supremely fashionable with his superficial, heartless paintings.
Manette decides that for the sake of their child and her own growing desire for respectability, Coriolis should rid himself of such bohemian friends as Anatole and Chassagnol and model himself on Garnotelle. She sets about arousing Coriolis’s suspicions concerning Anatole and herself. She then persuades Coriolis to go to the country as treatment for his lingering cough, and to take along the child and some new servants, who are her relatives. There is no room at the country house for Anatole. Coriolis has grown increasingly dependent on Manette to run his home, tend his wants, and make his decisions; he is too weak to refuse her suggestions.
Left alone, Anatole becomes a true bohemian, living from day to day on handouts and forgetting his art entirely. On Coriolis’s return, Manette sets about alienating his friends in earnest. They cease to visit him, cutting him off from valid artistic communication. Though Manette understands the artist’s life and has been able to adapt herself to it, she is fundamentally ignorant. Her ambitions are for money and success. To her, art is a business, whereas to Coriolis it is a religion. He does not oppose her, however. Her mother comes to live with them, and feminine domination begins to affect his health; as his psychosomatic illness increases, so does his dependence on Manette. He paints as she wants him to and becomes filled with self-loathing. Always eager for more money, she persuades him to sell some of his “failures.” Surprisingly, a connoisseur recognizes their true artistic merit and purchases them at a fantastically high price. Again Coriolis becomes successful.
In despair, Coriolis turns on Manette, accuses her of destroying a number of his canvases, and orders her out of the house. She calmly goes about her business as though she has not heard him. She has beaten him. A broken man, he is still strong enough in his belief to refuse a medal he has won for a wedding picture because he feels unworthy of the award. Manette scornfully removes herself still further from him, but he cannot leave her.
Some years later, Anatole hears that Garnotelle has married a princess, and that Coriolis was the best man. He sees Coriolis from afar, with Manette and several dreadful bourgeois types following him. Though love has long since waned between Manette and Coriolis, they are married and her ambitions are fulfilled. Coriolis paints almost nothing and becomes increasingly ill. Anatole, visiting the zoo again, watches the lions in their cages. He lazes on the grass, feeling himself a part of all nature and completely free.
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