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.
The 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:
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
Translated by Richard Howard