‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ by Honore de Balzac

“The Unknown Masterpiece” (1831) and “Gambara” (1837) by Honore de Balzac – 135 pages    Translated by Richard Howard

 “You draw a woman, but you don’t see her!”

'The Corn Poppy' by Kees van Dongen

‘The Corn Poppy’ by Kees van Dongen

What does it mean to ‘capture life’ in a work of art, literature, or music?  Perhaps it is in the art of painting where the issue presents itself most clearly.

Before there were cameras, the rich and powerful relied on portraits to capture the images of their beloveds and families.  Great artists were commissioned to create these images.

But there were issues.  An artist could capture a perfect likeness, but still something could be missing.  That sense of the person or persons being alive might not be there.  It is a matter of light and shadows, how the light plays off the skin, the expression on a face.  This sense of aliveness is elusive even in photography today.

“Good?…Yes and no. Your lady is assembled nicely enough, but she’s not 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 and then at a naked woman standing on a table, you think you’re copying nature–you call yourselves painters and suppose you’ve stolen God’s secrets. . .

“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 can never walk around her. She’s a flat silhouette, a cutout who can never turn around or change position.”

We are all familiar with the mad genius, someone whose creativity transcends the real world to the point of lunacy.  “The Unknown Masterpiece” is a story about that point where genius and madness collide.

It takes place in 1612.  Three artists meet at the home of one of them, Porbus.  Porbus was an actual artist of the time commissioned by Marie de’ Medici.  One of the artists at his door is the fictional recognized grand master painter Frenhofer.  The other artist is the real aspiring artist Nicholas Poussin. The above quoted lines are all from Frenhofer as he explains what is wrong with Porbus’ picture portraying Mary of Egypt.  With a few quick strokes Frenhofer ‘fixes’ Porbus’s picture.  Then Frenhofer talks of his masterpiece which he has never shown to anyone, his picture of Catherine Lescault.  I won’t reveal any more of the story than that.

817790Both of the artists Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso were profoundly affected by Balzac’s story ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’.  Picasso identified so strongly with Frenhofer, the master artist in this story, that he actually rented the house where the story takes place.

“The Unknown Masterpiece” is followed by another longer story, “Gambara”, which makes a similar point, this time in the world of musical composition.

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