Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Balzac’s concern in “The Unknown Masterpiece” is the problem of reconciling the various opposing forces in life, a problem that is particularly difficult for the artist. The problem is illustrated appropriately in the very pattern of the short story.

The story is divided into two chapters, one entitled “Gillette,” the second, “Catherine Lescault.” Gillette is the actual mistress of Poussin: She is a devoted young woman who considers love more important than art and feels somehow diminished whenever Poussin uses her as a model. At those times, she senses, he draws away from her and into some visionary world in which she is merely an object. Catherine Lescault, on the other hand, is the vision of Frenhofer, a vision so real that he will not show his painting of her to others, as if such an action would profane their love.

When the other painters see Frenhofer’s canvas, they realize that the true painting exists only in Frenhofer’s mind. Gillette’s prophecy comes true when all three painters are so obsessed with their art that they completely forget her. At the end of the story, she tells Poussin that, although she loves him, she hates him for turning her over to Frenhofer, thus proving that love is far less important than art. In a sense, Poussin loves his art as completely as Frenhofer does. A Catherine Lescault will always win any artist from the Gillettes of this world.

However, if the artists are alike in...

(The entire section is 402 words.)