The Unknown Masterpiece Characters
by Honoré Balzac

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The Unknown Masterpiece Characters

In Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” a poor young man named Nicolas Poussin has just come to Paris with aspirations of becoming a great painter. He goes to the studio of an artist he admires: Master Porbus, Painter in Ordinary to Henri IV.

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On his way up the stairs to the studio, he lets an old man in courtly attire, whom he regards as a “strange personage,” pass him by. This man is named Frenhofer, and he is an acquaintance of Porbus. Porbus, thinking that the two visitors came together, lets both inside. Frenhofer proceeds to judge one of Porbus’s paintings, calling out its every flaw, pointing out that it is missing “that indescribable something” which transforms a painting into poetry. By rattling off art theories (including the idea that “the aim of art is not to copy nature, but to express it”) and name-dropping famous artists who painted in the classical tradition, Frenhofer proves himself to be opinionated and pedantic. Poussin has to repress “his strong desire to beat the critic,” but he eventually cries out in opposition to his diatribe. Nonetheless, after seeing one of Poussin’s sketches, Frenhofer takes a liking to the young artist. Thus, Porbus and Frenhofer become mentors to young Poussin.

However, the turning point of the story occurs when Poussin offers up his young lover Gillette to sit naked for Frenhofer in exchange for the chance to see the old master’s mysterious painting of a beautiful “Catherine,” which he has supposedly been working on for ten years. At this point, the “artist” in Poussin overcomes the “lover,” and he turns Gillette against him. Furthermore, the painting proves to be a fluke—Frenhofer has spent ten years obsessing over theory, so much so that he has failed to realize that his prized painting is just a mess of color. Porbus sums up this fall from grace by stating that “Painters have no business to think, except brush in hand.” Frenhofer, after realizing in front of his friends that he has become paralyzed by doubt, dies after setting fire to his works.


There are four main characters in "The Unknown Masterpiece" by Honore Balzac. The story follows a young artist as he meets two masters of art in Paris.

Nicolas Poussin is the young artist. He is a poor, struggling artist living in Paris with his lover. He is excited about the prospect of art but has not found his start yet and can hardly afford art supplies. He is overjoyed to be working with these talented artists.

Master Porbus is...

(The entire section is 662 words.)