The Unknown Masterpiece by Honore De Balzac


The Unknown Masterpiece by Honore De Balzac is the story of a 17th-century painter, Frenhofer, who is considered an old master and has spent 10 years on the portrait of a woman. His painting style, and use of line and color, is very different from the standards of the day.

Young Nicolas Poussin who aspires to be a great painter goes to visit Porbus, a local artist, in his workshop and he takes the old master with him to help him understand the painting. Frenhofer comments on the painting Porbus has just finished saying it seems unfinished.

With permission he adds some slight touches of paint and transforms the painting and it comes to life before their eyes.  Frenhofer then talks about his own painting that he has worked on for 10 years and says he has not been able to find just the right model for the painting.  

Poussin is grateful for the help and offers his own lover, Gillette, as a model. Frenhofer accepts and is inspired to finish his project quickly. Poussin and Porbus then come to admire the painting, but all they can see is part of a foot that has been lost in a swirl of colors.

Poussin describes what he sees as nothing, but confused masses of color contained by a multitude of strange lines, forming a high wall of paint out of which emerges a delightful foot.

Their disappointment drives Frenhofer to madness and he sets fire to his studio and dies amid his whole production.

Some feel that this novella predicted the evolution of modern art.  Frenhofer claimed that there are no outlines in nature and seems to be anticipating the Impressionists by 30 years. Others suggest that that Frenhofer was just caught up in a mad obsession.

Richard Howard translated this book. He was born in Cleveland in 1929 and is the author of fourteen volumes of poetry and has published more than one hundred fifty translations from the French, including works by Gide, Stendhal, de Beauvoir, Baudelaire, and de Gaulle. Howard received a National Book Award for his translation of Fleurs du mal and a Pulitzer Prize for Untitled Subjects, a collection of poetry.

The French novelist Honore de Balzac was the greatest novelist by well-known literary pundits in the 1960's simply because he produced so many good novels in his lifetime. 

Quotes from "The Unknown Masterpiece"

“You have wavered uncertainly between two systems, between drawing and coloring, between the painstaking phlegm, the stiff precision, of the old German masters, and the dazzling ardor, the happy fertility, of the Italian painters.”

 “However," he continued, "this canvas is preferable to the paintings of that varlet Rubens, with his mountains of Flemish flesh sprinkled with vermilion, his waves of red hair and his medley of colors"

 “But, after all, too much knowledge, like ignorance, brings you to a negation.”