The Unknown Masterpiece

by Honoré Balzac

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

A poor young man named Nicolas Poussin, who has just arrived in Paris and who hopes to become a great painter, visits the studio of Master Porbus, Painter in Ordinary to Henri IV. Also, there is an older master painter named Frenhofer, whose presence Poussin regards as almost fantastical. Poussin sits back as Frenhofer gives a harsh, overly-informed critique of Porbus’s painting. The old painter talks extensively about art theory and the way in which a painting transforms into poetry. Poussin eventually challenges Frenhofer’s near dismissal of Porbus’s talent; nonetheless, both of the older painters see promise in the young man and Frenhofer invites them both to lunch. The subject of a painting Frenhofer has been working on for ten years comes up and, though Poussin is eager to see it, Frenhofer is too protective of his work. Three months later, Poussin offers up his lover Gillette to model for Frenhofer on the condition the old man will reveal his painting. Because Gillette is beautiful, Frenhofer agrees. However, Poussin and Porbus find that the old master has become so obsessed with theory and perfection that the painting is just a big swirl of colors. Frenhofer had thought his work was complete but, having seen his friends’ reaction, he realizes he has made no progress at all. Thus, he descends into madness and dies after setting fire to his paintings.

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