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Author photo. Portrait d'Emile Zola à trente ans (1870)

Portrait d'Emile Zola à trente ans (1870)

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Émile Zola, born in Paris to French-Italian parents, grew up in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. He was a childhood friend of Paul Cézanne, who would later introduce him to the Impressionist painters. Zola went on to attend the Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris, but failed the baccalauréat exam, the prerequisite to further academic studies. He spent the next two years unemployed and living in the most dismal poverty. Finally, in 1862, he was hired as a clerk at the publishing firm of Hachette. To supplement his income, he began to write articles for various periodicals and published his first novel, La Confession de Claude (Claude’s Confession), in 1865. He then left his job to write full time. He made a career in journalism while publishing successful novels, including Thérèse Raquin (1867) and the monumental 20-book Rougon-Macquart series. In the 1860s and 1870s, he wrote newspaper articles defending the art of Cézanne and others including Manet, Monet, Degas, and Renoir, whose work was not yet accepted by the public or art critics. His home in Médan, on the Seine River near Paris, became a gathering place for a circle of writers and artists. In 1898, he famously intervened in the case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer wrongful convicted of espionage. Zola published a fierce open letter headlined "J'accuse" ("I accuse") in the newspaper L’Aurore, denouncing the French general staff and the War Office for concealing the truth in the matter. Zola was prosecuted for libel and found guilty, but fled to England to avoid imprisonment. He returned to France the following June when the Dreyfus case was reopened. He was recognized at his death not only as one of the greatest novelists of the 19th century but also as a man whose works and actions had changed the course of French history.
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