The images have a true aim: direct and unpretentious, yet atmospheric. Their texture and visual sonority are honest: expressive monochrome, confident perspective, calibrations of grey and no tricks or tints, as characterised some early photography from the nineteenth Century. Some pictures are documentary of the time, showing an excitement at modernity as the industrial revolution came of age. Others are bravely intimate, as the photographer admits us to his private, contradictory, and even inner life.
But this photographer is not one of the famous names to pioneer the art. These pictures were taken by the most remarkable and acclaimed writer of his time, Émile Zola. His photographs are on show until the end of the year at the modest but estimable civic museum in the seaside resort which Zola visited for three summers from 1886, where he first encountered photography: Royan, at the mouth of Gironde, an hour south of La Rochelle.
In addition to Zola’s own work, there are extraordinary pictures of the writer on holiday, taken by the man who introduced him to photography: Victor Billaud, journalist and snapper for the local Gazette des Bains-de-Mer – Sea-Bathing Gazette,indeed! He was a kind of paparrazzo socialite and author of an early guide book, whose job it was to report on celebrity visitors and ingratiate himself into their vacation circles. And to shoot pictures: of Zola on the beach, Zola with poor oyster-fishers, Zola with his entourage, raising a glass.
Any serious reader knows and loves Émile Zola. Any serious writer or journalist is likely to have devoured his work at an early age, never to recover. To me, for what it’s worth, Zola is at once the daunting inspiration and impossible role model; his greatest novels – L’Assommoir, Nana, Germinal, L’Oeuvre, La Bête Humaine et al – are the gold standard of literary reportage, fiction researched as ‘method journalism’ in the depths of society and in the coal mines, to reach the page as they do. (I had read the epic twenty-novel cycle Les Rougon-Macquart by the age of twenty, and have made sure to reread them every decade since to keep my brain hungry. I bought the entire series in the costly Pléiade edition when drunk in Paris only recently, at a late night bookshop.)
Few, if any, writers could bring to the page with such vivid cogency the hopes and moments of stolen happiness, the passing triumphs and tribulations, the depredations and degradations of human beings and the human condition like Zola. Few, if any, writers could craft such incisive characters, with unrelenting realism, yet set them ‑ and even their agency – within a schema of inevitable downfall and disintegration – Zola’s so-called ‘Naturalism’.
And now here is Zola the photographer, on display, in an estimable single-room museum at a resort which, since Zola’s time here, was flattened after two waves of ‘rolled carpet-bombing’ by Avro Lancaster planes during the liberation of France from Nazi occupation – liberation Bomber Harris style, at a cost of 440 civilian lives, a taboo in English and even quarters of French history. As a result, Royan is a model of post-deco 1950s architecture.
But that’s another tale (also told at this museum). Here is how Zola’s hobby, rather than career, as a photographer, happened: a story of characteristic fascination with all around him, fame and success, but inner torment, love for – and family with ‑ a younger woman, a subsequent double life; protest against injustice, exile and final affirmation.
By the mid-1870s, Zola’s had established himself as at once one of the most influential yet controversial writers in France. His Rougon-Macquart had followed the fortunes of a fictional family from Provence to Paris and forged a literary-philosophical school: this Naturalism, a form of realism that observes the natural – rather than idealistic, or supernatural – determination of human life, and, in Zola’s case, the degradation of the human condition over generations.
Zola had made his name with the dark, claustrophobic Thérèse Raquin, in 1867. The idea to write a series of novels which followed the fortunes and misfortunes of ‘the natural and social history of one family under’ – an almost narrative metaphor ‑ the Second Empire (1852-1870) was conceived before the ravages of war, Commune and repression in 1871, and the first, La Fortune des Rougon was published that year. In 1877, Zola published the seventh in the series, L’Assommoir, a devastating story about the aspirations of Gervaise ‑ a woman in the poor Barbès Rochechouart quarter of Paris ‑ to open a laundry among the absinthe-soaked Provençal community. Serialisation in magazines had caused uproar, and the novel was nearly banned. But it was so successful that Zola’s friend and publisher Georges Charpentier rescinded a contract making himself the sole beneficiary to grant his author a percentage of the 18,000 franc revenue, more than had been earned by all of Zola’s previous books together.
With the proceeds, Zola bought a house in the countryside, 40 km from Paris, ‘hidden in a nest of greenery’. ‘Literature paid for this modest country retreat,’ he wrote to Gustave Flaubert; a retreat ‘which has the merit of being far away from any resort and of not having a single bourgeois in the neighbourhood’. It was a handsome two-storey house, where he would write each morning from 9 am until lunchtime – and then resume work from 3 pm until 8 pm ‑ to enact his dictum nulla dies sine linea – not a day without a line. From these endeavours came some of his greatest work: Nana, Germinal and La Terre, income from which, over time, enabled him to build two extensions, one on each side, the Tour Nana, and the hexagonal Tour Germinal. In these, the writer accommodated his friends and visitors, especially his Naturalist followers, Edmond de Goncourt, JK Huysmans, Guy de Maupassant, Henry Céard ‑ and the post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne.
Zola had married Alexandrine Meley in 1870. She had had a difficult childhood: her typographer father disappeared when she was little, and her mother died soon afterwards. Perhaps her confused identity – she changed her name back and forth ‑ appealed to Zola, whose father, Francesco, was Venetian but who was born in Paris and moved south aged three. Alexandrine had a child by a first marriage but, unable to support her, let her go. When she confessed this to Zola after they were wed, the couple went in pursuit of the child, to find that she had died. Émile and Alexandrine Zola had no children, but she was a tireless facilitator of his work.
‘I read the Rougon-Macquart novels as a teenager,’ says the Royan exhibition’s curator, museum director Isabelle Debette-Gemon, as though to affirm membership, quite rightly, of the clan. And so the pictures, displayed in reverse chronological order, so that one does best to start at the back and work towards the entrance, beginning here in Royan, not with Zola’s own work, but that of Viktor Billaud, taken of the master en vacances.
With L’Oeuvre published in 1886, the Zolas accepted an invitation from Charpentier to join his family and entourage at Royan for the summer season. Zola accepted, and his arrival was hardly a low-key matter in the resort. ‘It is a happy fortune for our city.’ gushed Viktor Billaud in the bathing newsletter, ‘to count among its guests the profound observer, the powerful writer, author of many works … That M. Zola would allow us to send our cordial salutations of welcome.’ The Charpentiers were installed at their regular villa, Le Paradou, along the beaches south of town, where the Zolas joined them. Zola’s party arrived on September 11th, for the Gazette to conclude next day: ‘Yesterday, [Zola] did not know Royan, and is now among its most passionate admirers’ – prematurely, but not inaccurately. Zola took to the place: its beaches, its horse-drawn ‘tramway’, excursions to fish, “flâneries at the Café au Bains, soirées at the Foncillon Casino”, reported the Gazette. Le Paradou ‘survived the allied bombing’, says Mme Debette-Gemon, but not that of the developers of the 1980s. She’s right: photographs of the time show an elegant balcony and wooden balustrade, with woodwork around the windows, now stripped away to create an uglier facade of the renamed La Charmeuse. A modern block of holiday flats is called Résidence Le Paradou.
And here are photographs, mostly sepia, from this and the two following summers: Zola and a party on the beach, the writer third from the left, in a suit and hat. There’s a series depicting Zola, Charpentier and Fernand Desmoulin dressed as resort dandies, in white. In one, Zola kneels playfully before his editor. And in another, Zola and Desmoulin appear to shelter Charpentier’s pipe from wind as he lights it; There’s a close-up of Zola and Charpentier, possibly one over the eight, in heated discussion, and an embrace.
The Zolas returned the following year, from September 1st to October 9th, 1887, after the publication of La Terre. ‘I killed myself with writing, to get done with La Terre,’ he wrote. The Carpentiers wanted them to again share Paradou, but Zola this time preferred to be apart, and took a villa called Chalet Albert ‑ it’s still there, now called Le Rêve. ‘I’ve come to rest myself after my heavy work of winter and spring,’ Zola recorded, ‘I am a hundred thousand leagues from all the literary gossip.’ The Zolas enjoyed dîners au vin with their friends and took a trip to Bordeaux aboard a steamer – the food in the city was ‘execrable’ but the boat ride was ‘superb!’ ‘I’m doing nothing,’ he wrote, ‘I’m recovering a bit from my terrible year.’
The next year, 1888, Zola had even more reason to find relief at Royan, on his last of three summers there. Publication of L’Oeuvre had cost him the friendship of Paul Cézanne, who saw himself depicted as the painter in the novel, Claude Lantier, who commits suicide. The Naturalist philosophy that drove his books was assailed in Le Figaro by a group of opponents proclaiming a ‘Manifesto of Five’ against him. Nomination as a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in July caused further attacks: ‘For a piece of ribbon one could obtain with a purchase,’ Octave Mirabeau thundered, ‘Mr Zola has renounced everything.’ Along with the photographs in the museum, there are two porcelain plates from the day, one showing Zola’s coffin being carried into the communal garbage incinerator, the other a pig pulling a garbage truck, onto which are piled some dozen books, including copies of Nana, Germinal and La Béte Humaine. But the photographs that year from Royan show Zola enjoying his holiday: in one, what appear to be the writer and Fernand Desmoulin dressed in antique garb, with togas and classical headgear.
This third summer, however, Zola got more than the break he had planned. Renting a villa called Les Oeillets, the Zolas brought with them a seamstress and laundress by the name of Jeanne Rozerot, employed in May that year by Alexandrine ‑ which proved to be a fateful hire, from her point of view, though not Zola’s. Alexandrine was not in the best of spirits or health, and urged the young lady, aged twenty-one, to accompany her husband on his walks around the resort. ‘It was the worst decision she ever made,’ says Mme Debette-Gemon, albeit relishing the tale.
Jeanne had been born in 1847, the daughter of a miller in Burgundy. Her mother died when she was two, and she was taught embroidery by her maternal grandmother. She was beautiful, slender and wide-eyed, and ‑ it strikes one irresistibly ‑ resembles Clôtilde in the last of the Rougon-Macquart series, Le Docteur Pascal, where Zola writes: ‘ … it was monstrous, but it was true enough, he was hungry for all that, filled with a devouring hunger for that youth, that flower-like flesh that was so pure and with such a scent’.
On those walks, Zola fell in love with Jeanne. His fellow holidaymakers noticed how he paid sudden attention to his appearance, trimmed his beard, took a debonair turn. But no one could predict the degree to which this encounter would change the rest of his life, and with it the lives of Alexandrine and Jeanne.
The pictures from this third trip are the most compelling, and it seems to have been on this holiday that Zola took a closer interest in what Victor Billaud was doing. There is Zola, dressed in white, doffing his cap at his editor’s beautiful daughter, Georgette, who was betrothed to the writer Abel Hermant at a ‘sumptuous dinner’ in Royan. The young lady, with her parents and a dog, pass by in a horse-drawn carriage. A group photograph in a garden shows the young fiancés at centre, Zola propped against a tree, wearing a pensive, downcast expression. Another photograph shows a group at table in a garden, probably at Le Paradou, and servants (with a very different demeanour to the diners) at left. Zola is to the rear, in top hat, raising his glass ‑ Santé! Most remarkable is a picture of Zola with a group of oyster-fishers and their children, outside a rustic stone cottage at Grève-a-Duret. The faces are extraordinary: they wear their manifest poverty and simplicity of life in their clothes and faces, but with strength and dignity. This is the only glimpse so far of Zola’s world on the page. Another cluster of clearly local children sit at the front of a group in front of a church ‑ Zola at the rear, again looking away from the camera, apparently in thought. But in no photograph does Jeanne appear ‑ she comes later, and with a vengeance. And so: on to Zola’s own photography, and photographs.
Zola had in the 1860s met Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known by the pseudonym Nadar, the photographer, caricaturist, journalist, novelist, balloonist and proponent of heavier-than-air flight. They encountered one another at the Café Guberois in Place Clichy, meeting place for a circle that also included Édouard Manet. In 1858, Nadar had become the first person to take aerial photographs; he joined the Société des Gens de Lettres, of which Zola became president in 1891, and took portraits of the writer between 1876, before the trip to Royan, and 1898.
During the years after the Royan sojourns, Zola became captivated by photography; he began his most intense period with a camera from 1894, six years after he first encountered the quotidian use of one during the coastal holidays. It became a passion: he installed darkrooms in the basements at Médan and his various homes, he perfected a shutter release system that permitted him to take pictures of himself. He tried different kinds of paper ‑ pan paper and even platinum paper less likely to age ‑ and he developed and printed from his own negatives. He refused ‘props’ and touch-up effects, and colouration. ‘When I evoke the objects which I have seen,’ he said, ‘I see them again the way they really are … It is the ultimate materialisation.’ A version of the camera he preferred, a 9×12 cm ‘Petite chambre à Plaques’ is on display at this exhibition.
We’d like to think perhaps that Zola’s aim was to amass images to feed his writing, building up a kind of visual notebook. But the bulk ‑ and the most important novels of ‑- the Rougon-Macquart were already written by the time he took up photography. However, here at the museum in Royan are dramatic images he captured of steam trains: the Le Havre-Paris express rattling along not far from the house at Médan at full speed ‑ powerful, dirty and billowing smoke. The charisma of trains captivated Zola, as we know, and there’s an obvious association between these photographs and La Bête Humaine, written in 1890, a clear influence.
Back in Paris from Royan, Zola installed Jeanne in an apartment on the rue St Lazare, overlooking the Trinity church. Their first child, Denise, was born there in September 1889. ‘The double life I am forced to live,’ Zola wrote, ‘ends up by filling me with despair.’ But two years later, a second child, Jacques, was born, in September 1891 while Zola was travelling with Alexandrine in the Pyrenees ‑ he learned of the birth from a notice in Le Figaro.
Alexandrine was tipped off about both Jeanne and the children by an anonymous letter. She broke into the apartment in St Lazare, and burned all her husband’s letters. Zola wrote to Jeanne: ‘I had the dream of making everyone around me happy. But I see that this is impossible.’ He confided to a friend: ‘A storm has been raging inside me, a storm of desires and regrets.’ And to Jeanne: ‘I want you and my two darlings to have your part’ ‑ Jeanne and the children then moved to Verneuil, close to Médan. Zola installed photographic processing facilities at both houses, which, as we can note from the photographs, were even furnished with the same chairs.
The photographs at Médan, mostly from the mid-1890s, capture various moods: there is Zola with his bicycle, in plus-fours. Alexandrine in the garden, statuesque, holding their dog PinPin, with the other hand on her tricycle. Some are downright, and refreshingly, playful: Zola perched atop a haystack, wearing a woman’s hat; Zola lying in the grass with PinPin, the ‘child’ in a childless marriage. And perhaps most directly of all: Zola with a camera, the obvious cover for the exhibition’s brochure, taken by another, for which he had set the timer. But then, over to Verneuil, for another kind, and another level, of intimacy …
There is Jeanne, sitting back at a table laid for tea and biscuits, calm, strikingly beautiful, at ease with herself and the ménage, lace ruff. And on either side of her: Denise at left, with a splendid hat and frock, looking serious and gazing directly at the camera. She must be about eight or nine years. Jacques, in a striped tunic, leans against the table, focusing on tea. Behind them, pillars of a veranda, and a verdant garden. Another picture, with a narrower tonal range, shows Zola and the children: he wears a bow tie, and seems disarmed by the moment. Denise rests her head slightly against his shoulder, and this time Jacques outstares the beholder. There’s even a family foursome, around a small table: Denise to the left, reading; Zola coaching Jacques with some homework or other written endeavour, and Jeanne detached, looking askance, lost in thought. It is an almost excruciatingly intimate family group.
And it gets more personal, unspoken. A double-frame has Jeanne at left smiling to herself, and Zola at right, holding her in an embrace, forehead pressed against hers. It is not clear whether Zola takes both shots using a time-lapse for himself as usual, or whether they appear to take each other’s picture: each lying on the same ornate sofa, beneath an embroidered oriental rug on the wall. Zola holds a copy of Ouragan ‑ Hurricane ‑ magazine; Jeanne is reading her husband’s Travail ‑ except she isn’t, she holds the book but her gaze is fixed on the mid-distance.
Jeanne raised the children to adore their father, and Zola went daily by bicycle to visit his family. Alexandrine made peace with the reality – how reluctantly, we don’t know – as did Jeanne with Zola’s marriage. Denise would later write of her mother: ‘She gave my father a fervent love, which was filled with both admiration and tenderness. But their relationship, which resembled that of the most united couples, caused those two things to suffer from the lie, since they respected the truth like an idol.’ She has a good point: Zola’s situation was especially ironic given the genealogy of the Rougon-Macquart, based as it is on something approximating the ‘original sin’ of double life: that led by the woman whose womb is the ancestral source for most of Zola’s ensuing protagonists. Adelaide Fouque has a legitimate son, Eugène Rougon, who pursues a bourgeois existence beholden to the Empire, and illegitimate offspring (whom Rougon seeks to disinherit) with her lover, the alcoholic smuggler Macquart, whose descendants struggle with poverty.
Denise added: ‘How much more I would have loved him had I known his secret distress.’
In 1894, the Zolas toured Italy: it was the first and only time the author visited his paternal homeland. The tour was of four cities: Rome (where he sought, but was refused, an audience with Pope Leo XIII), Naples, Florence and father Francesco’s native Venice. There are disappointingly few pictures on show here from this trip, during which Zola seems to have attempted social documentary for the first time. But enough to capture the endeavour: a crowded Roman textile marketplace, with poles supporting the stalls creating a geometric design, a woman in the foreground sporting what might be a newly purchased scarf, a busy scene of potential buyers browsing, with a cross-street and baroque windows as backdrop. Another quickly grabbed image shows a military parade marching over the cobblestones of the capital, rifles across shoulders, while a mule pulls a cart in the opposite direction. More static, and beautifully crafted, is a depiction of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, from the southern, left bank of the Arno. Sadly, there are no images on display from Venice, where Zola was ‘received like a native son and fought over as a distinguished guest’.
In October 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an artillery officer of Jewish descent, was arrested for ‑ and later convicted ‑ of high treason, in a brazen atrocity of antisemitism. Zola famously rallied to Dreyfus’s defence, with a proclamation on the front page of the newspaper L’Aurore, dated January 13th, 1898, entitled ‘J’Accuse! Lettre Au Président de la République’. On February 23rd, Zola was condemned to one year in jail for his defence of Dreyfus. Zola met his lawyers at Charpentier’s home on the night his conviction was upheld and immediately left the Gare du Nord for Calais, and from there to London. He was taken to Wimbledon by Ernest Vizetelly, publisher of English editions of the Rougon-Macquart ‑ and the on to Oatlands Park Hotel in Weybridge, under the pseudonym of Beauchamp. He moved from there to South Kensington, thence to a house in Upper Norwood. Viztelly’s daughter acted as his interpreter.
Zola was bored that winter: ‘Here, I am in a desert,’ he wrote home to Alexandrine. ‘I don’t see anyone, my life continues without a distraction, without an event. I work, that is all.’ Which was not entirely true: he was visited in London by Jeanne and the children, and a photograph shows Jeanne at the window of their oh-so-suburban-English residence in exile. Alexandrine visited later. It is strange, given his books, that Zola did not use the occasion to follow in the footsteps of his fellow citizen Gustave Doré – also Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew – and venture into London’s famous slums, docks and gin lanes. ‘I think,’ says Mme Debette-Gemon, ‘he was genuinely afraid of the police – there was a warrant for his arrest, and an extradition treaty in place between England and France.’ One fine photograph from the exile section does, however, show a London bobby crossing a steep terraced street, which recedes downhill, near Crystal Palace.
On June 3rd, 1899, a jury annulled the verdict against Dreyfus ‑ Zola was gratefully back in Paris within three days. Back home, he split his day between morning with Alexandrine and afternoon with Jeanne ‑ there’s no specification on where he was for the night, but there was a darkroom at both addresses.
And so we reach the great Exposition Universelle ‑ the World’s Fair ‑ of 1900, Zola clearly feels a sense of liberation from the Dreyfus affair, excitement at a new century and the modern age of industry, trade and bold invention. The fair was spread over 240 acres, encompassing the sites of previous fairs (in 1855, 1867 and 1878) and the by then eleven-year-old Eiffel Tower. This was the era of the invention of the internal combustion engine and the telephone, the discovery of radium by Pierre and Marie Curie, and of vaccines by Louis Pasteur; of balloons, electric light ‑ and in France the opening of the Métro as a public utility, coinciding with the popular presidency of Émile Loubet.
For all his pessimistic Naturalism when it came to human beings, the degree to which Zola was invigorated by the growth of France’s industrial prowess is palpable in the photographs. There’s a sleeping Ariel view of the Eiffel Tower, with its iron girders like muscles of the new age ‑ with the pavilions arraigned around it, and the big wheel in mid-distance. Pavilions line the banks of the Seine; Zola is captivated by those from the far East, particularly that of Cambodia.
Zola’s depictions of Paris, astride the centuries until his death in 1902, contrast interestingly with his novels. As in London, there is little attempt to depict the poor, the absinthe houses, the crowded conditions he etches so vividly in words. There is one striking photograph, however: a rain-swept street, across which a silhouetted figure carries an umbrella … and a figure to the right of frame, walking towards us, struggling with the wet, in working clothes, carrying a dog, or is it a hog, under her shawl: it could so easily be Gervaise from L’Assommoir.
But apart from this instance (on show here, at least), Zola seems to have felt that when it came to close-range Naturalist realism, he had ‘done that’ with his pen, and there was no need or reason to try and visually reproduce his pages with a camera. He is interested in the visual textures and timbres of urban life; his progressions from ‘black’ to ‘white’ are evocative and atmospheric, and in his graduations of grey he creates a wonderful visual sonority.
If the images are less engaged, they are no less curious or journalistic. Men sweep a street under the watchful eye of a police officer ‑ perhaps they are prisoners about their labour. In another, a wide pathway in (perhaps) the Bois de Boulogne proceeds towards the vanishing point, lined by trees, criss-crossed by walkers, prams, a child with a tennis racket, a boy running, a woman with a linen basket holding a child by the hand. There’s a marvellous scene outside the Gare St Lazare, of the post and telegraph carriage, and the bustle around the station entrance ‑ a bowler-hatted man strides along while he consults the newspaper; behind him a working man in overalls; porters haul luggage and carriages line the road behind, in deep perspective, beneath an overpass. A masterfully depicted scene – seen, stolen and captured by a master’s eye.
Zola et la Photographie runs at the Musée de Royan, Charente Maritime, France, until December 30th, 2023. Zola: Photogaphe, by François Emile-Zola and Robert Massin, was published by Seaver/Collins in Paris/London in 1988. Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart novels are well translated – by various translators ‑ as individual volumes in Oxford Classics paperback editions. There is no complete set in English. In the original French, they are published individually as paperback Livres de Poche, but best is a good five-volume economy edition containing all twenty novels, edited by Colette Becker, published by Bouquins. Nothing, however, beats the Pléiade editions, if credit limit and minimum payments allow‑ after a drink for bon courage.
Ryanair serves La Rochelle direct from Dublin and Cork. (There is car hire at La Rochelle airport, and a good train service from the city to Royan. Flights to La Rochelle also leave London Gatwick, Manchester and Bristol (easyJet) but from Britain it’s infinitely more pleasant to avoid LGW and go by train – via Paris – then return by plane.)