Emile Zola’s Portrait of Les Halles
"Zola made these notes for his 1872 novel, Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). A friend and champion of the Impressionists, he modeled his character, the painter Claude Lantier, after Paul Cézanne, and in fact his preliminary notes resemble an artist’s sketchbook. Drawn to the ever-changing complexion of Les Halles, Zola recorded all that he saw with passion and precision. His character Lantier similarly spends hours wandering through the market’s pavilions, inspired by the intensity of his surroundings.
Zola’s detailed descriptions of Les Halles make it clear why these vast central markets, which nourished Paris for over a century, loom so large in the imagination. Painters, poets, writers, and photographers were all drawn to Les Halles with its strikingly modern halls designed by the architect Victor Baltard. The pavilions comprising this “super” market, built in several phases during the mid-1800s, were constructed predominantly of cast iron, copper, and large expanses of glass. From before dawn until late afternoon, these imposing buildings furnished the city’s most sumptuously laid tables, as well as the rudimentary kitchens of the poor. They were filled with extraordinary life."