Emile Zola, Cézanne's boyhood friend, showed an early interest in painting. He was particularly interested in the artists rejected by the official critics. In 1866, he wrote an article on Manet in La Revue du XXe siècle and defended him again the following year when he organised a private exhibition on the fringes of the Universal Exhibition. Zola regarded the artist, who was contested by traditionalists, as one of the masters of the future, whose place was in the Louvre. In 1867, the article was published as a slim brochure with a blue cover, here in full view on the table.
To thank him, Manet offered to paint Zola's portrait. The sittings took place in Manet's studio, rue Guyot. The setting was arranged for the occasion with items characteristic of Zola's personality, tastes and occupation. On the wall is a reproduction of Manet's Olympia, a painting which sparked a fierce scandal at the 1865 Salon but which Zola held to be Manet's best work. Behind it is an engraving from Velazquez's Bacchus indicating the taste for Spanish art shared by the painter and the writer. A Japanese print of a wrestler by Utagawa Kuniaki II completes the décor. The Far East, which revolutionised ideas on perspective and colour in European painting, played a central role in the advent of the new style of painting. A Japanese screen on the left of the picture recalls this.
Zola is seated at his work table. He is holding a book, probably Charles Blanc's L'Histoire des peintres frequently consulted by Manet. An inkwell and a quill on the desk symbolise the writer's occupation.
This portrait sealed the start of a loyal friendship between Manet and Zola, both eager for success.