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Émile Zola : A Father Hen

The Musée d’Orsay showcases some twenty portraits the novelist-photographer Émile Zola made of his daughter and model, Denise.
Émile Zola
Émile Zola Paris, 1840 – Paris, 1902, Portrait of Denise, around 1900 © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. Rmn – Grand Palais, Alexis Brandt

During the last years of his life, Émile Zola (1840–1902) devoted himself to photography. This tenacious passion, “full of mysteries and setbacks” led him to develop his own negatives and take a close interest in chemistry. He photographed the Eiffel Tower at night as well as his pet dog Pinpin; the banks of the Thames during his exile in England as well as his friends visiting Médan; and his most intimate circle, his wife Alexandrine and Jeanne Rozerot, with whom the writer had two children, Denise (born in 1889) and Jacques (born in 1891). 

Zola was crazy about Jeanne and her children. He captured his mistress with her hair untied, suddenly voluptuous in broad daylight. He photographed the children at teatime and during their outdoor amusements; he took pictures of their dolls, their games of croquet, their swings; he shot them blowing soap bubbles, sprinkling the cage of their Senegal parakeet, and riding their bicycles… They enjoyed themselves dressed in their Sunday best that wasn’t their Sunday best. The privileged setting: the house in Verneuil-sur-Seine with its flowery garden, not far from that of Médan, which he rented for his “beloved” and his “two sweethearts.”

Émile Zola
Émile Zola Paris, 1840 – Paris, 1902, Portrait of Jacques and Denise, around 1900 © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. Rmn – Grand Palais, Alexis Brandt

Ninety-six photographs from the summer of 1897 went into composing an album, Denise et Jacques: Histoire vraie [Denise and Jacques: True Story], acquired in 2017 by the Musée d’Orsay. It is the centerpiece of the exhibition “Les années heureuses” [The Happy Years], titled after the first novel published by Denise Le Blond-Zola in 1920 (under the pseudonym Denise Aubert). The album, on display at Orsay, cannot be leafed through, but curator of photography and cinema, Marie Robert, complemented it with twenty solo portraits of Denise taken inside the Verneuil house. “She poses, she looks at him, she plays along,” observes the curator, whose intention was not to analyze this father–daughter rapport but rather simply to reveal it to the contemporary public.

Denise does not smile: she is silent, pensive, serious. She is very young: she was thirteen when her father died on September 29, 1902. She is a disciplined model in front of this “indulgent father,” as she noted later, not suspecting that he was caught between two lives, his official one, with Alexandrine, and the other, clandestine, with Jeanne, her mother. She sometimes poses with her arms crossed or her head resting on her hand: she takes the opportunity to observe her adored father, perhaps even to study him secretly.

Émile Zola
Émile Zola Paris, 1840 – Paris, 1902, Family Portrait, around 1900 © Musée d’Orsay, Dist. Rmn – Grand Palais, Alexis Brandt

And Zola? For his part, there is no showing off, no accessories or trinkets: Denise is as in a bubble, protected. A feeling of closeness clearly comes across: there is no shadow cast over the photograph, there is no ghost (unlike photographs of Victor Hugo, more mystical). Denise is in her element, we could say, she personifies Nature. Now she is at home at Orsay, where Françoise Heilbrun had already valiantly honored her in 1989, shortly after these portraits were acquired for the photographic collection. We would like to see them exhibited more often, by the way: the nineteenth century is a disquieting labyrinth.

“The Happy Years, Denise Photographed by her Father Émile Zola”, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, until June 1, 2022.

The website of the Musée d’Orsay

Maison Zola/Musée Dreyfus in Médan

Émile Zola in Oxford World’s Classics here.

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