The Unknown Masterpiece Summary
by Honoré Balzac

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The Unknown Masterpiece Summary

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.

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “The Unknown Masterpiece,” Honoré de Balzac describes two meetings of three artists, the old painter Master Frenhofer, the prominent master Francois Porbus, and the young man Nicholas Poussin. As the story begins, Poussin is hesitating before Porbus’s door. When Frenhofer appears and is admitted, Poussin follows him into the only painter’s studio he has ever seen. Here he is struck by the first important piece of art in the story, Porbus’s painting of the Virgin Mary. To Poussin’s surprise, Master Frenhofer criticizes the painting for lacking life. When Poussin objects, the older artists challenge him to prove his right to be in the studio by producing a sketch. To illustrate his own emphasis on life and movement, Frenhofer then applies his own touches of color to Porbus’s Virgin Mary, making the figure live as he had insisted he could.

Invited to Frenhofer’s home, Poussin sees a second fine painting, the Adam of Frenhofer’s own master, Mabuse. However, to Frenhofer, this painting, too, lacks some spark of life. As the painters talk, Poussin observes the esteem in which Frenhofer is held, his own lofty standards for art, his wealth, and his knowledge. Poussin is impressed by Frenhofer’s description of the painting that he hopes will be his masterpiece, a portrait of a courtesan, Catherine Lescault. Frenhofer, who has devoted ten years to this painting without completing it to his satisfaction, muses that perhaps he simply lacks the right model. At any rate, he refuses to allow anyone to see the painting.

Returning to his garret, Poussin embraces his devoted mistress Gillette, to whom love is all-important,...

(The entire section is 772 words.)