Manet was close friends with the writer Émile Zola; both lived in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, where they traded ideas and inspiration with other artists such as Degas and
. (The group dubbed themselves the Batignolles and would eventually form the
.) In dialogue with Manet’s painting, Zola went on to write a book about the fictional prostitute’s rise to fame. Completed in 1880, it was also titled Nana
Zola’s novel stands in great contrast to Manet’s painting. Where Manet was cheeky, Zola was moralizing; where Manet was observant, Zola was judgmental. The writer describes Nana at one point as “the Beast of the Scriptures,” whereas “the painting is really the epitome of art without moral dimension,” Muhlstein notes. “Manet just shows something, he doesn’t judge.”
Today, Zola’s Nana is read mostly as a clunky period piece. It’s hard to take his outrage about the prostitute seriously. Perhaps one reason Manet’s image resonates more strongly today is because of his sense of empathy—he allowed Nana to be both a powerful woman and a prostitute, without assigning fear to that concept in the way that Zola did. He wasn’t afraid to attribute the figure of Nana with real societal power.
And, as a result, “prostitutes appeared as real people,” says Muhlstein. “If you take the example of Nana, there you have a young prostitute, a courtesan, looking at you straight in the face. She’s a person—you can’t just brush her aside as you would if you encountered a streetwalker. Suddenly, you’re face to face with her.”