The Unknown Masterpiece

by Honoré Balzac
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Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 232

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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 540

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, so important that she resents his concentrating on the canvas rather than on her when she poses for him. Hesitantly, Poussin proposes that Gillette pose for Frenhofer. Only when Poussin seems to renounce art for love does she consent, but she warns him that the experiment may result in the end of their love. Perhaps he no longer loves her, she thinks; perhaps, she thinks, he is not worthy of her love.

The second meeting of the three artists takes place three months later. Depressed over his inability to perfect his painting, Frenhofer again thinks of finding a model. When, however, Poussin offers Gillette in return for allowing Porbus and him to view the painting, Frenhofer refuses, as if their seeing his Catherine Lescault would profane her. However, when Gillette, still doubtful, arrives, Frenhofer agrees. At last admitted to his studio, Poussin and Porbus look in vain for the masterpiece. The canvas that Frenhofer shows them is merely a mass of paint, with no discernible image, except for the tip of a foot, which has escaped the layering of colors. To Frenhofer, the figure is there, brought to life by the paint that conceals it. When Poussin blurts out the truth—that there is nothing on the canvas—Frenhofer falls into despair, but soon his dream recaptures him, and once again he sees his Catherine Lescault. At that moment, Poussin remembers his Gillette, discarded and crying. She rebukes him and says that she hates him. Shown to the door by Frenhofer, the painters are chilled by his farewell. That night he burns his pictures and dies.

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