The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac

Back to Balzac for the story, The Unknown Masterpiece–a story that found its way into the Jacques Rivette film, La Belle Noiseuse (1991).  This is a story about three artists, and I read the NYRB edition which includes another story, Gambara. To the two, I preferred the latter story, but more of that in another post.

unknown masterpieceThe Unknown Masterpiece is less than 40 pages in my edition, and the story opens in 1612 with a young, poor artist, Nicolas Poussin pacing in front of the home of a famous painter, Porbus, the court painter of Henri IV. Perhaps he wouldn’t have had the courage to knock at the painter’s door, but Poussin is passed on the stairs by a very elderly man who is admitted into the painter’s residence, and Poussin drifts in too.

While Poussin is in awe of being in the presence of Porbus, a man whose talent he admires, the elderly man, an artist named Frenhofer, doesn’t exactly lavish praise on the paintings. According to Frenhofer, the paintings may be anatomically correct, but they lack life:

The old man sniffed. “Good? … Yes and no. Your lady is assembled nicely enough, but she’s not drawn alive. You people think you’ve done it all once you’ve drawn a body correctly and put everything where it belongs, according to the laws of anatomy! You fill in your outline with flesh tones mixed in advance on your palette, carefully keeping one side darker than the other, and because you glance now at a naked woman standing on a table, you think you’re copying nature–you call yourself painters and suppose you’ve stolen god’s secrets! … Brrr! A man’s not a great poet just because he knows a little grammar and doesn’t violate usage! Look at your saint, Porbus! At first glance she seems quite admirable, but look again and you can see she’s pasted on the canvas–you could never walk around her. She’s a flat silhouette, a cutout who could never turn around or change position.

Frenhofer, a man of strong opinions, demonstrates his theories on a painting that belongs to the young artist Poussin, and the seemingly slight alternations he enacts make a convincing argument. Poussin’s ‘good’ painting is transformed into something magnificent, “a picture steeped in light.”

Frenhofer invites Poussin and Porbus back to his studio, and while there, the men admire a portrait of Frenhofer’s model. Frenhofer admits that he’s “failed to find [is] a flawless woman,” and later Poussin offers Gillette, his lover and his model to Frenhofer….

The intro by Arthur C. Danto states that Poussin and Pourbus were two very real artists, and that the latter was “the leading portraitist of his era.” Danto argues that the three artists “are, so to speak, the spirits of Past, Present, and Future.” I didn’t interpret the characters in the same way–to me they were three artists who are at various points in their respective careers. With the appearance of Gillette, Balzac introduces the theme of the artist’s sacrifice to Art, but there’s another theme here–the Quest of Idealism. Gambara also explores the exhausting possibilities of Idealism, so the pairing of these two stories in one volume is appropriate.

The Unknown Masterpiece asks the questions: “What is art?” and “What is a masterpiece?” “Would we recognize a masterpiece if we saw it?” and finally “Who decides if something is a masterpiece?”  By this point in the story, I thought of Andy Warhol’s Oxidation Paintings (Piss Paintings)–one, which according to an internet source, sold for $1,889,000 back in 2008. For these paintings, canvases were prepared with copper paint and then urinated on with this result:oxidation painting

Ah, what price art!

But back to something truly beautiful–the Girl with the Pearl Earring–a painting I recently saw which is, btw, much more beautiful than expected and something that Frenhofer would admire. The young girl who posed for the painting seems very much alive

Her eyes seemed moist to me, her flesh was alive, the locks of her hair stirred … She breathed

girl with the pearl earring

Translated by Richard Howard


Filed under Balzac, Fiction

21 responses to “The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac

  1. You are reminding me that I need to really read Balzac. I love these stories that involve the philosophical meanderings on the meaning of art and beauty.

    Warhol’s paintings are just a little too over the line for me to appreciate.

  2. Asking of a piece on view, “Is it art?” is not a useful question, or one that can be answered with any sort of rigor. Let’s just say art is what is made by people we call artists. The important question is, “Do I (you) find it at all interesting, and why?” That leaves most of Warhol’s work, and a lot recent stuff, in the dustbin for me.

    BTW, have you read Fatale, recently republished by NYRB? If not, you will certainly like it!

    • well there are limits:

      Warhol is a very strange figure. I recently rewatched Factory Girl and I always find Warhol a strange figure to understand. I need to read a bio, I suppose.

      Have you seen Absolut Warhola?

      Yes I’ve read Fatale. I hope NYRB print more of this author. I’ve read three of his now and enjoyed them all.

      • Oh good, my next question was whether Machette’s novels are available elsewhere? I want them!

        Factory Girl was a good flick, I thought, except for a bit of over-the-top treacle with the Bob Dylan part. I think it presents a good picture of how Warhol fit into the art scene then. (I’ve written about him on my blog – I studied him a lot in school when I wrote my undergraduate magnum opus on kitsch.) Robert Hughes is scathing on Warhol, and I pretty much agree with his assessment, although I like some of his prints as decorative or background pieces. Ephemera… The key to understanding him is to realize that there isn’t much to understand:

        “I think Warhol realized that popular culture in the early 1960s was ready to step lightly over the homosexual bar, and Capote’s unabashedly affected and effeminate manner were probably an inspiration to him. His great insight was that if he just played himself straight, people would not know how to accept – process – his personality, and would assume he was ironical, sophisticated, in other words, an artist. Then he could do the things he most wanted to do: get rich; hobnob with the rich and famous; be famous; and play with pictures other people made, while others did his publicity and produced critical laurels and justifications for him. He was dead on, and his blockbuster success was the proof. The only irony was that he assumed others would assume he was an ironist, and he was happy to let them.

        There’s really not much to Warhol’s work, unless you enjoy his colors and designs, at least, not much that isn’t created and put there by others. But that never mattered to him”

  3. And further, if I may rant on… You say: “well there are limits…”

    The whole point of Marcel Duchamp’s work, whatever you think of it, is that there are no limits. He is the father of ‘conceptual art,’ although he was a lot more clever and funny that most of his followers.

    Not to put too fine a point on it…I heard on NPR of a ‘poet’ who has a teaching post at Princeton (not that that institution is anything like a respository of intellectual integrity or value…) where he teaches a class about his ‘work’ that comprises mostly ‘collages’ of existing material. Creativity is dead, or at least overrated. Just quote the phone book, or something equally mundane. He encourages his students to plagiarize – it’s all briccolage anyway, right? They are assigned to buy term papers online and then defend them…debating club as literature! He is ‘poet laureate’ of MoMA. His discussion of his work was pompous in the extreme, and he’s hardly even original. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is, in a sense, exactly the sort of non-creative writing he advocates, being as it is an enormous compendium of quotations from other authors, knit together by Burton’s prose. By only a genius like Burton could make such a book a joy to read: there are many such in Medieval and Renaissance literary history, and nobody but scholars would ever force themselves to read them!

    My rant is through…for now.

  4. I’ve read Fatale, The Prone Gunman and three to Kill–all reviewed here.

    I was talking about Hirst–specifically his animal exhibits–nothing against Duchamp.

    And as for the NPR Poet: good grief!

    Any Warhol bio to recommend? Have you seen I Shot Andy Warhol?

  5. Hirst. Grrr. That’s someone who winds me up np end. Having living butterflies fly on canvases where they die miserably during an opening. And… I used to work at the ART here in Basel. Big event. One year I sabotaged an artist when i saw he had a living hen in a tiny cage sitting on the head of what looked like the Pope. It looked like the idea was to have the animal shit on the Pope’s head. I had the animal rights people come and then ended up with the hen. It was bit of a drama to find a place for her but at least she was freed. the artis made a huge fuss. That’s where I think there decidedly are limits.
    Else I thing anything goes as long as no living being comes to harm in the name of art.
    I have seen the movie but not read the novella. It sounds a bit dry.

  6. This is a story I read but couldn’t review: I didn’t have the appropriate English vocabulary.
    This Wharol painting speaks to me as much as a Jackson Pollock.
    Personnally, I don’t like Poussin. Heavy. Like David and his painting of Napoleon.
    Some painting appear to have a correct anatomy but don’t (The Birth of Venus by Botticelli) according to specialists.
    I thought that’s what Frenhofer means: sometimes you need to leave accuracy behind to create beauty. The women painted by Modigliani seem very alive to me and yet, their features are exact but still true to life.

    It’s the same in music: a good pianist may play all the notes by the letter but if they lack inspiration to interpret the score, their performance lacks soul.

    PS: I read the Unknown Masterpiece after attending this exhibition “Chefs-d’oeuvre?”
    In addition to paintings and sculptures, there were a first edition of The Unknown Masterpiece and Balzac’s cane.

  7. Do you have a favourite artist or period of art? I prefer the pre-raphaelites.

    Was it the artistic terms that you had difficulty with?

    As for Frenhofer… I saw it as a canvas full of colour with just a foot peeking through. The foot is marvelously done and very life-like yet Frenhofer refers to her breast which the other painters can’t see. The other two painters seem to think Frenhofer is crazy–although perhaps it’s an ‘abstract.’ But certainly Frenhofer and the other two see completely ‘different’ versions of the same canvas.
    As for me, I can’t draw decent stick figures, so what do I know.

    • I love Modigliani, I could stare at his painting for hours.

      I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites rather recently, there was an exhibition in Paris. They don’t stir much emotion in me.

      Yes, I didn’t know the artistic words, that’s why I couldn’t write about it. I lack vocabulary for theatre too.

      I think that Maugham excels at describing Strickland’s paintings in The Moon and Sixpence. He made me see Gauguin in a different way.

    • Do you mean pre-Raphaelites, or the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood)?

      This story reminded me of a childrens book I read my daughter about a Croc who painta materpieces for his friends…but they appear to be simply white canvasses.

    • There is a big exhibit of PRB works at the National Gallery now, and it was reviewed in the NYTimes today. The article was a full-page spread, and I cannot recall ever reading another like it about a museum show. It was totally negative!

      I like the PRB, but I thought she made some good criticisms, however, overall I was stunned by its hostile, condescending tone, its snobby pro-modern cannon bias, and its complete neglect of historical context.

      Check it out!

      • Thanks for the tip. Written by someone who is clearly not a fan. I’ve seen this sort of thing before, and it wasn’t that long ago that you could pick up a PRB painting for a surprisngly small amount. I’m a fan of the literature of the period and so that deepens my interest.

        • Regarding PRB prices…don’t I know it! I kick myself because when I was studying art history, I was aware that a lot prb, symbolist, and salon art was considered junk to hide in the museum attic. Should have formed a syndicate to buy some! When I graduated, there was a major show in Philly, and prices started to rise!

  8. I always want to get back to Balzac when I visit your blog. You write to enthusiastically about him. This sounds a very interesting read, raising questions which are still asked today. Certainly, Girl with a P.E is a masterpiece and will remain so forever – it’s simplicity, the wonderful turn of the head, the remarkable blue colour on the scarf. I assume you saw the film? It’s quite good I thought despite some adverse reviews

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