(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...

(The entire section is 540 words.)