Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021
Manette Salomon portrays the world of art in Paris during the middle of the nineteenth century. Like most of the novels written by the brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, this work emerged out of their personal experiences. In addition to writing extensive reviews of art exhibitions and salons, both the Goncourts were practicing artists themselves and were acquainted with many of the most famous artists of their time. The relationships between artists in Manette Salomon reflect the dynamics of the art world the authors knew.
The main characters represent certain types of artists. Langibout represents the older generation of artist nurtured on officially sponsored schools, and he provides training for younger artists. His stature contrasts with that of the budding artists under his tutelage. Garnotelle is a parody of the classical academic artist. He compensates for his humble background and lack of training by painting in a formulaic manner. Garnotelle enjoys success as a fashionable society portrait painter, and he becomes overbearing and pompous.
Anatole Bazoche represents an artist who may have talent but is more attracted to the life of an artist than to art itself. He attempts to paint a serious work of art but instead creates a horrendous allegorical tableau of democracy and progress with Christ at its center. In the end, he is haunted by the figure of Pierrot, in whom he sees himself. His alter ego, his pet monkey Vermilion, wears the same mask of levity and even tries painting and fails. When Vermilion dies, Anatole buries his playfulness and abandons both art and the bohemian life to become an assistant zookeeper.
Crescent represents the successful artist, someone with talent and a stable personality. He has somehow avoided the corrupting influence of civilization. His wife, unlike Manette, helps to further his career. She takes care of the farm and finances while he works. They have no children, so she does not undergo the same unhealthy transformation as Manette. While the Goncourts show Crescent integrating personal and artistic goals, they, like Coriolis, advocated celibacy as the ideal state for an artist.
The principal character is the artist Coriolis, and his developmental struggle is the focus of the novel. Coriolis not only has real talent but also has the capacity for hard work. While traveling the Continent, he discovers a new approach to painting that resembles Impressionist technique. The method is based on the observation of nature in the open air, using detached bits of colors and lighting effects. Coriolis truly comes to life when he strains to achieve absolute beauty in art. The Goncourts themselves keenly sympathized with the quest for the ideal, and they were able to translate vividly the emotional effort and urgency involved in painting, in attempting to capture the ideal. They describe the play of light and color in Coriolis’s canvases as appealing more to the senses than to the intellect.
Manette Salomon opens with a detailed depiction of the artist’s world in Paris, after which the Goncourts finally introduce Coriolis and attempt to reconcile the broad social canvas with their protagonist’s individual psychology. The love between Coriolis and Manette rapidly disintegrates. At first, Manette does not endanger Coriolis’s career, for she is a professional artist’s model dedicated to her own art and seems to Coriolis the incarnation of Beauty. Even when she becomes his mistress, the relationship does not seem serious on either side. Only after Manette appears as an Eastern dancing girl at Coriolis’s costume ball does he become infatuated with the illusion.
Coriolis has resolved never to marry because he believes that the pleasures of family will ruin him as an artist. When Manette becomes a mother however, he yields. Once married, Manette changes entirely. She becomes very greedy for money, which the Goncourts associate with her Jewishness. Her Jewish relatives are caricatures of grasping materialism, and her son is depicted as a monster who is alienated from his father. The Goncourts imply that the true identity of Manette is revealed after marriage and motherhood, and that her character is determined by biological imperative, but the layers of illusion that initially mask her character seem too complex for such a simple conclusion.
Manette, by debasing Coriolis’s art and his character, convinces him to pursue money and official honors rather than pure art. As a result, he finally loses his artistic impulse. The novel dramatizes the clash between two impulses toward creation: man’s drive toward artistic creation and woman’s drive for maternity. The woman emerges the winner in this struggle because of man’s sexual desire and woman’s acceptance of lust. Coriolis’s suffering, and the accompanying decadent motifs of disintegration and fragmentation, portend the end of a neurotic civilization. Images of winter and nightfall dominate the final chapters, in which Coriolis longs for death. His predicament encapsulates the vain attempt to grasp the ideal. The Goncourts suggest that eternal beauty is masked by the vagaries of popular taste. The theme of the illusive external world opposed to reality extends beyond the question of identity to the nature of art. Not only is true beauty veiled by illusory beauty, but also any explanation of beauty is an illusion, even though beauty itself is real.
The Goncourts’ style transposes painting into literature in a style resembling that of the Impressionists, with its attention to nuance of tone. They succeed in creating a picture of an artist’s life in mid-nineteenth century Paris and in depicting the conflict between the “Ingrists,” etchers who emphasized line, and the colorists. As champions of antiacademic art, the Goncourts thought that the glory of French painting lay in the return to nature. The brothers’ styles mesh in Manette Salomon. Whereas Jules de Goncourt inclined toward broadly comical sketches and picturesque comparisons, Edmond de Goncourt showed sensitivity toward nuance and was more methodical and pedantic. Their collaborative novel caricatures the Jewish race and indicts women for their pernicious influence over men, but, much more important, Manette Salomon depicts in vivid detail the artistic trends of the time and the individual artist’s struggle to create pure art.
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