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Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 275

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Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece” presents a reflection on art. Porbus and Frenhofer present two opposing ideas on the best way to create art. Porbus claims that “painters have no business to think, except brush in hand,” or that art theory only hinders progress on a painting. Conversely, Frenhofer believes that an artist can get nowhere without studying the great painters and the great theories of art. Balzac seems to make fun of Frenhofer’s line of thought through the old man’s long diatribes on “that indescribable something” that Raphael’s and Titian’s paintings have. Frenhofer is also considerably conceited when it comes to his own works; he does not hold back when critiquing Porbus’s painting. In addition, the narrator observes that his body language and smug expressions suggest that he regards many paintings as inferior to his own. It is later revealed that, though he is a gifted painter, Frenhofer is indeed paralyzed by his own knowledge, or his preference for theory over work. He has worked on a certain painting for ten years and, only when Porbus and Poussin come to see it, does he realize that he has grown so obsessed with it, painting layer upon layer, that one can barely make out the woman it is supposed to represent. Like Porbus, Balzac suggests that the main daily goal of a painter is to actually just paint, for if a painter gets too caught up in theory, other facets of his/her life may begin to suffer, as is revealed by the demise of Frenhofer (and as is suggested by young Poussin’s risking love for art.)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 413

In a short story that is about art, it is appropriate that Balzac pictures reality as artists would perceive it. For example, young Poussin first sees Frenhofer in the light peculiar to dawn and thinks of his figure in terms of Rembrandt. In Porbus’s studio, he again notes the light, as it touches objects in the clutter. Returning to Gillette, he thinks of her love in terms of light, her smile as a sun that shines in darkness. Finally, looking at Frenhofer’s “masterpiece,” they think that the studio light may be hiding the form that Frenhofer insists lives on his canvas, and they peer at the chaos of color in search of some form before they perceive that all that remains of reality in Frenhofer’s painting is the foot of Catherine Lescault.

A consistent metaphor in the story is that of the mistress. Gillette, the living mistress, is justifiably jealous of Poussin’s art, whose claim on him is made clear in the first sentences of the story, when he waits at Porbus’s door like a lover attending a new mistress. Clearly, when Gillette models for him, he thinks about his vision, not his model, and she senses his infidelity. When he wishes her to model for Frenhofer, she sees this activity as a kind of prostitution, and Poussin admits that the idea makes him feel dirty.

To Frenhofer, all living mistresses are unfaithful eventually, but his ideal—ironically, a courtesan—will always be faithful to him. However, he senses the existence of some imperfection in his painting, which causes him to consider using a live model and finally accepting Gillette. Like Poussin, who is ashamed of having offered Gillette, Frenhofer believes that to show his canvas to other painters would be a kind of prostitution. To him, she is a wife, yet a virgin; in the painting, she is naked and must be clothed before she can be seen. Jealously, he accuses the younger painters of wishing to steal her; even after his brief suspicion that he has created nothing, he turns them away and covers the canvas where he believes Catherine exists. Finally, the metaphor of the mistress is suggested in the last lines, for, once having destroyed his painting, his beloved, Frenhofer can no longer live. Unlike Poussin, who can survive without Gillette’s love, but like the most romantic of lovers, Frenhofer must die without his love, even though she is only an artistic illusion.