The Unknown Masterpiece

by Honoré Balzac
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Themes

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Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 213

"The Unknown Masterpiece" is by Honore de Balzac, and the story is about artists, including Nicholas Poussin, a young artist on the rise, Francois Porbus, a recognized master, and an older painter named Master Frenhofer. He uses these characters to explore the themes of the inherent trouble in trying to lead a balanced life as an artist.

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In your paper, one approach you can take is talking about the tension between two parts of the life of an artist, namely love and art. This tension is demonstrated in the first part of the story, called “Gillette,” when Gillette’s lover, the young artist Poussin, lets the old painter Frenhofer paint her.

The artists quickly become more enamored with the painting Frenhofer gets from painting Gillette, a fictional woman he calls “Catherine Lescault.” Gillette is more interested in love than art, and there’s almost a rivalry between the real woman and the fictional idol.

Frenhofer eventually becomes disconnected from reality, painting only what’s in his head and not really seeing what he’s actually putting on the page. One conclusion you can draw from this about the story’s theme in your assignment is that Balzac is saying art without love is hollow. The two must be in balance to mean anything.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

Balzac’s concern in “The Unknown Masterpiece” is the problem of reconciling the various opposing forces in life, a problem that is particularly difficult for the artist. The problem is illustrated appropriately in the very pattern of the short story.

The story is divided into two chapters, one entitled “Gillette,” the second, “Catherine Lescault.” Gillette is the actual mistress of Poussin: She is a devoted young woman who considers love more important than art and feels somehow diminished whenever Poussin uses her as a model. At those times, she senses, he draws away from her and into some visionary world in which she is merely an object. Catherine Lescault, on the other hand, is the vision of Frenhofer, a vision so real that he will not show his painting of her to others, as if such an action would profane their love.

When the other painters see Frenhofer’s canvas, they realize that the true painting exists only in Frenhofer’s mind. Gillette’s prophecy comes true when all three painters are so obsessed with their art that they completely forget her. At the end of the story, she tells Poussin that, although she loves him, she hates him for turning her over to Frenhofer, thus proving that love is far less important than art. In a sense, Poussin loves his art as completely as Frenhofer does. A Catherine Lescault will always win any artist from the Gillettes of this world.

However, if the artists are alike in their devotion to art, they differ in their approach. Having learned his master Mabuse’s secret, Frenhofer insists that he can paint the essence, the spirit of his subject. He insists that painters such as Porbus, who cannot decide between the precision of lines and the emotional splash of color, can never truly bring their subjects to life. When the younger painters at last see Frenhofer’s masterpiece-in-progress, they realize that in his ten years of seeking essence, of applying layer on layer of color in order to attain the abstraction, he has retreated totally into his own dream. The implication of Balzac’s story, then, is that the true artist must combine life and love with art, objectivity with subjectivity, mechanical copying of life with vision of the unknown and unseen essence of life. For all of his genius, Frenhofer has dedicated his life to creating a masterpiece that will always remain unknown.

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