Honoré de Balzac’s immense production and his celebrated writing schedule of some two thousand pages per year suggest an artist who gave no thought to theory or form, and a glance at some of his journalistic endeavors will readily confirm these clichés. Quite early in his career, however, examples of Balzac’s genius were expressed in his short fiction.
“The Unknown Masterpiece”
“Le Chef-d’uvre inconnu” (“The Unknown Masterpiece”) was first published in newspaper form in 1831, and was later included in The Human Comedy under the classification of Études philosophiques (1831-1835; Philosophical Studies). The story deals with the lifelong obsession of master-painter Frenhofer to discover ideal beauty and its representation. Two admiring disciples, Franz Purbus and Nicolas Poussin, real-life artists used by Balzac to add verisimilitude to his story, come to seek advice; in exchange, they propose that the mistress of Poussin be the model for the work that Frenhofer has been trying to complete after all these years. No sooner does the master see the young woman than his inspiration permits him to complete without further delay the elusive painting. When he unveils the work for his friends, however, they are dumbfounded to see on the canvas a mass of colors and lines, but no figure. Embarrassed and wondering if Frenhofer may not be playing a joke on them, they hem and haw, examine the painting with great attention, and finally discern a foot, a beautiful, living foot, lost in the haze of colors and details. When the master, lost in ecstasy, understands the reality of his disciples’ incomprehension and realizes that even his fellow artists are unable to grasp the significance of his creation, he sends them away, burns his paintings, and dies.
Balzac’s story fits into the tradition of the ars poetica, works about the act of artistic creation. It reveals to what extent the young and busy author himself meditated on this critical topic, on the distinction between artistic theory and artistic practice, and, in this case at least, anticipated the aesthetic revolution to be launched by the Impressionists.
Completely different in tone, Droll Stories recalls the gross farce of François Rabelais and the bawdy dimensions of the esprit gaulois. Like the fabliaux of the late Middle Ages, the stories poke good-humored fun at indecency. Like...
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