Friday, November 14, 2008

Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece - confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines

A curious thing has happened to Balzac's story The Unknown Masterpiece (1831). The meaning of the story has been completely transformed, hijacked, by later writers and artists. It now does something that Balzac could hardly have guessed.

The story is set in 17th century Paris, and the protagonist is the young Nicolas Poussin, just beginning his career. It's the only Balzac story I know of set at that time, and the only one starring an actual person. The (non-actual) painter Frenhofer, a great master, has been working on a single painting for ten years; no one has ever seen it. There's some plotty stuff about whether Poussin will allow his girlfriend to pose nude for Frenhofer, and whether the girlfriend will do it. Finally, she does, and Frenhofer finishes his painting, and Poussin and his friend Porbus get to see it. Frankly, nothing interesting has happened so far. Then:

"The two painters left the old man to his ecstasy, and tried to ascertain whether the light that fell full upon the canvas had in some way neutralized all the effect for them. They moved to the right and left of the picture; they they came in front, bending down and standing upright by turns...

'The old lansquenet is laughing at us,' said Poussin, coming once more toward the supposed picture. 'I can see nothing there but confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.'

'We are mistaken, look!' said Porbus.

In a corner of the canvas as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living beauty held them spellbound. This fragment that had escaped an incomprehensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town."

Confused masses of color, half-tints and vague shadows, with a form somehow underneath - who does this sound like to you? Willem de Kooning? Kandinsky? Toulouse-Lautrec? If it reminds you somehow of Cézanne, at least one great artist agrees with you - Paul Cézanne. "Frenhofer, c'est moi!" he supposedly declared, between sobs, when his art dealer mentioned Balzac's story. Picasso, weirdly, also claimed to identify with Frenhofer.

We now read Balzac's story with a frame of reference that he could not have had. In 1831, there was no such thing as abstract art, no such thing as Impressionism. I have to struggle a little to try to get back to whatever meaning Balzac was going for. Balzac saw Frenhofer's labors as a complete failure, I'm pretty sure, a pointless and destructive obsession over perfection. Watching the other painters look at his canvas, Frenhofer suddenly sees what they see:

"Frenhofer looked for a moment at his picture, and staggered back.

'Nothing! nothing! After ten years of work...'

He sat down and wept."

The Unknown Masterpiece is not much of a story, really. But there's an idea in it, an idea that I'm pretty sure was not Balzac's, that is rich enough to have kept this story alive and inspired later artists and writers. Henry James either parodied this story in "The Madonna of the Future," or pushed it to its logical conclusion. It's been so long since I read it that I don't remember which. Maybe both. I understand that there's a Zola novel that also makes use of The Unknown Masterpiece. And then there's the Jacques Rivette modernization, La Belle Noiseuse, a four (!) hour movie that mostly consists of alternating shots of a nude Emmanuele Béart, and closeups of the hand of the artist who draws her.

Maybe this is a good place to mention another Balzac story about a painter, Pierre Grassou (1840). This one is about a hack painter who becomes wildly successful. It's mean, and funny, almost a joke with a punchline. Balzac doesn't like the agonized Frenhofers, but he doesn't like the hack Grassous either. The proper way to be an artist is to be like Honoré de Balzac.

My quotes are from an Volume 22 of an antique collected Balzac, no translator specified. If possible, try to get the NYRB edition, or at least take a look at Arthur Danto's introduction (pdf).


  1. read it as opposition to Sir Professor Christopher frayling's ON CRAFTSMANSHIP:TOWARDS A NEW BAUHAUS.

  2. Is that a useful exercise? Please say more.