Claude Lantier, the painter, had hanged himself in his studio in front of an unfinished painting of his wife in November 1870. His wife Christine, who posed for this picture and was painfully jealous of it, lost her mind with grief. Claude lived in abject poverty. There was nothing left but a few sketches: the last and the main picture, a failed masterpiece, Claude’s friend Sandoz ripped from the wall and burned in rage. Except Sandoz and Bongrana - another friend of Claude, there was no one from their company at the funeral.
They all were from Plassana and became friends in college: the painter, Claude, novelist Sandoz, architect Dubuche. In Paris Dubuche with great difficulty entered the Academy, which was subjected to the merciless ridicule of friends: both Claude and Sandoz dreamed of a new art, disdaining classic designs and dark romanticism of Delacroix. Claude is not just a phenomenally gifted - he's obsessed. Classical education was not for him: he is learning to depict life as it is - Paris, its central market, the quays of the Seine, cafes, passers-by.
Sandoz dreams about the synthesis of literature and science, about the giant novel series, which would cover, and would explain the history of mankind. Claude’s obsession is alien to him: he is fearfully watching how periods of inspiration and hope are replaced with grim impotence. Claude works, forgetting of food and sleep, but it does not go beyond sketches - nothing satisfies him. But the whole group of young painters and sculptors believe that Claude will become the head of the new school. It is nicknamed as "school of plein air".
Claude stayed aside the women up until one night, not far from his house on Bourbon waterfront, he during a storm met a young beauty - tall girl in black, who has come to enter as a lecturer to a rich widow of the General. Claude had nothing to do but to invite her to spend the night with him, and she had no choice but to agree. Chastely placing the guest behind the screen and annoyed at the sudden adventure, in the morning Claude is looking at the sleeping girl: it is the nature of which he had dreamed of for a new picture. Forgetting everything, he started quickly sketching her small breasts with pink nipples, fine hand, black hair. Waking up, she in terror tries to hide under the sheets. Claude hardly persuades her to sit on. They are introduced: her name is Christine, and she is barely eighteen. She trusts him, he sees in her only a model. And when she leaves, Claude angrily admits that he will never again see the best of his nudes, and this fact seriously upsets him.
He was mistaken. She stepped by in a month and a half with a bouquet of roses - a sign of her gratitude. Claude can work with the same enthusiasm. He planned to portray a nude woman on a background of a spring garden with strolling couples and sports champions. The name for the picture is already there - just "Plein Air". In two sessions, he wrote Christine's head, but he hesitates to ask her to pose nude again. Seeing him suffering, trying to find a model like her, one evening she undresses in front of him, and Claude concludes his masterpiece in a few days. Painting is for the Salon of Les Miserables, conceived as a challenge for officious and unchanging in its allegiances Paris Salon. Besides Claude’s painting some crowd is gathered, but the crowd laughs, Claude is terribly depressed. Why is a woman naked and a man dressed? Why brush strokes are so sharp and rough? Only artists understand the originality and power of this painting.
In feverish excitement, Claude shouts of contempt for the public, that, together with his friends he will conquer Paris, but he returned home in despair. Here another shock awaits for him: the key is sticking in the door, a girl is waiting for him for two hours. It's Christine, she was on the show and saw everything: the picture on which with horror and delight finds herself and the audience, which consisted of fools and scoffers. She came to comfort and encourage Claude, who, having fallen to her feet, cannot bear sobs.
It's their first night, followed by months of amorous intoxication. They are rediscovering each other. Christine leaves her job, Claude finds home in Bennecourt, a suburb of Paris, just for two hundred and fifty francs a year. Without having married to Christine, Claude calls her his wife, and soon his unsophisticated lover discovers that she is pregnant. The boy is named Jacques. After his birth, Claude returned to painting, but Bennecourt landscapes have already become boring, he dreams of Paris. Christine understands that to bury himself in Bennecourt is unbearable for him: the three of them returned to the city.
Claude visits old friends. Sandoz got married, but still on Thursdays accepts his friends. Gathering the same circle they sadly notice that the dispute without the old fervor and say more about themselves. The bond is broken, Claude goes to the solitary work: it seems that now he is really able to put a masterpiece. But the Salon for three consecutive years rejects his best, innovative, amazing creations: winter landscape of city outskirts, Square in May and sunny, and a Roundabout in midsummer. Friends are in awe of these paintings, but a sharp, roughly accented painting deters the Salon jury.
Claude is again afraid of their inferiority, hates himself, his lack of confidence influences Christine. Only a few months later a new idea - a view of the Seine with port workers and bathers, come to him. Claude rapidly starts on the gigantic sketch, writes the canvas, but then, as always, in a fit of insecurity spoils his own work, cannot do anything to bring to the end, ruining the plan. His hereditary neurosis is expressed not only in genius but also in failing to be realized. Every finished work is a compromise, Claude obsessed with perfection, tries to create something more vivid than life itself. His work is becoming more spasmodic, enthusiasm runs faster. Creativity becomes his torture.
Then Claude and Christine, tired of the neighborhood gossip, finally decide to get married, but the marriage did not bring happiness: Claude is absorbed in work, Christina is jealous: becoming husband and wife, they realized that the erstwhile passion died. Besides this his son irritates Claude with his excessively large head and sustained development: neither the mother nor the father knows that Jacques has cerebral edema. Comes poverty, Claude starts the latest and most ambitious of its picture - again naked woman, the personification of Paris at night, the goddess of beauty and blemish on the background of the glittering city. On the day when in the twilight evening light he sees his just finished painting and again convinced that he is defeated, dies twelve years old Jacques. Claude immediately begins to write "Dead child" and one of his friends, feeling guilty before the ragged senior fellow, with great difficulty puts a picture in the Salon. They hung out in the most remote room, high, almost invisible to the public, it looked terrible and pathetic.
The end of Claude proved worse than friends could have imagined. During one of the painful and already meaningless sessions when Claude repeatedly painted naked Christine, she could not stand. Terribly jealous of the woman on the canvas, she rushed to Claude, begging for the first time in many years, again to look at her as at a woman. She is still beautiful, he is still strong. This night, they are going through such a passion, which was not known in their youth. But while Cristine is asleep, Claude rises slowly and goes to the studio, to his picture. In the morning Christine sees him hanging on the crossbar, which he himself had once nailed to strengthen the ladder.