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,...
(The entire section is 1569 words.)