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The Masterpiece is one of the most controversial novels of Zola's famous Rougon-Macquart series. It has often been regarded as an attack on the Impressionist painters, who had been Zola's close friends. Its vividly realized setting is the art world of Paris at the end of the Second Empire and in the following decade—artists, models, art dealers. It is a panorama of a moment in French history.
The work deals with the artist's frustration: in this instance, the endless attempt to fix on canvas his vision of female beauty. The artist gradually transfers love for his model to obsession with the woman he is striving to create in his painting. In writing the novel Zola, throughout, rendered in prose the diffused and transient light effects sought in Impressionism.
As Robert J. Niess has shown in Zola, Cezanne, and Manet (The University of Michigan Press) the protagonist of The Masterpiece is a composite character bearing resemblances to various Impressionist painters. Moreover, in scarcely any other of his writings has Zola revealed so much of his own inner life—of his failures and disappointments.