Read The Unknown Masterpiece Online

Authors: Honore de Balzac

The Unknown Masterpiece

BOOK: The Unknown Masterpiece

(1799–1850), one of the greatest and most influential of novelists, was born in Tours and educated at the Collège de Vendôme and the Sorbonne. He began his career as a pseudonymous writer of sensational potboilers, before achieving success with a historical novel,
The Chouans
. Balzac then conceived his great work,
La Comédie humaine
, an ongoing series of novels in which he set out to offer a complete picture of contemporary society and manners. Always working under an extraordinary burden of debt, Balzac wrote some eighty-five novels in the course of his last twenty years, including such masterpieces as
Père Goriot
Eugénie Grandet
Lost Illusions
, and
Cousin Bette
. In 1850, he married Mme. Eveline Hanska, a rich Polish lady with whom he had long conducted an intimate correspondence. Three months later he died.

is a poet and translator. He teaches in the School of Arts at Columbia University.

is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Columbia University, art critic for
The Nation
, and author of many books about art and philosophy. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Barbara Westman.

The Unknown Masterpiece

Honoré de Balzac

Translated from the French by

Richard Howard

Introduction by

Arthur C. Danto


New York


I think a man spends his whole lifetime painting one picture or working on one piece of sculpture. The question of stopping is really a decision of moral considerations. To what extent are you intoxicated by the actual act, so that you are beguiled by it? To what extent are you charmed by its inner life? And to what extent do you then really approach the intention or desire that is really outside it? The decision is always made when the piece has something in it that you wanted.

—Barnett Newman

"The events of human life, be they public or private,” Balzac wrote, “are so intimately bound up with architecture, that the majority of observers can reconstruct nations or individuals in the full reality of their behavior, from the remnants of their public monuments or the examination of their domestic remains.” The novel in which this passage appears—
The Pursuit of the Absolute
—thus begins with a description of a specific house in a specific street in a specific town: a lodging in the rue de Paris in Douai, “the physiognomy, the interior disposition, and the details of which have, more than any of the other houses, retained the character of the old Flemish buildings, so naively appropriate to the patriarchal mores of that good country.” And the action of the novel unfolds along the lines our social intuitions have been prompted by the architecture to anticipate. Here, as elsewhere in his vast work, Balzac sets down, with the precision of a journalistic dispatch, the
of place, time, history, and politics against which his stories are plotted, as a way to give his dreamlike inventions the possibility of human truth.

The sites of Balzac’s fictions are nearly always real places, but so transfigured that the house at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris, where the action of
The Unknown Masterpiece
begins, belongs as much if not more to his great character, the painter Frenhofer, as to Picasso, who took it for his studio in 1937, almost certainly because he believed it to have been where Frenhofer’s story was set.
And Frenhofer himself is so close to the limits of true artistic creativity as to have become part of the self-image of every artist familiar with him. There is a famous passage in Émile Bernard’s recorded conversations with Cézanne, in which the aging master explicitly identifies with Balzac’s painter:

One evening when I was speaking to him about
The Unknown Masterpiece
and of Frenhofer, the hero of Balzac’s drama, he got up from the table, planted himself before me, and, striking his chest with his index finger, designated himself—without a word, but through this repeated gesture—as the very person in the story. He was so moved that tears filled his eyes.

Frenhofer is, as Balzac explicitly notes in connection with his musical counterpart, the obsessed composer Gambara, a figure out of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s
. Both stories are niched in that arrondissement of
La Comédie humaine
which he designates
Études philosophiques
—fictional exercises in which “the ravages of thought are depicted.” Balzac himself, one might say, is made of the same fabric as his artists—a pilgrim in quest of the Absolute.
La Comédie humaine
was no more realizable as a whole than Frenhofer’s painting or Gambara’s perfect symphony. To any of these artists we can apply the brilliant witticism with which Jean Cocteau characterized Balzac’s friend and admirer, Victor Hugo: that he was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo. Balzac was a madman who actually lived a life that would strain credulity had he written the story of it as a fiction. We as much believe in Frenhofer—unlike any of Hoffmann’s characters—as we believe in Balzac himself as a kind of true impossibility.

It says something about the power of Balzac’s fiction that Frenhofer remains more real to us than either of the two historical artists—Nicolas Poussin and Franz Pourbus—who interact with him in
The Unknown Masterpiece
. Or perhaps it is a tribute to the fact that the highly romanticized vision of art and especially of painting, through which Balzac imagined Frenhofer and his
, remains, even in this age of cynicism and deconstruction, the strongest component in our concept of art and certainly our concept of painting, whereas it is all but impossible to see Poussin’s austerely intellectual canvases, let alone the late Mannerist compositions of the court painter Franz Pourbus—for whom Balzac employs the gallicized name Porbus
—in such terms. They are reimagined by Balzac for the purposes of his story—but Frenhofer has, unlike either of them, become a living myth. Poussin and Pourbus are too locked into the history of art to be successfully reimagined, though it is true that Balzac somewhat transforms them for purposes of his parable.

The story is set in the Left Bank of Paris, on a chill December afternoon in 1612. In art-historical truth, Poussin indeed arrived in Paris in 1612 at the age of eighteen, but though he was to become the greatest French painter of his age, in reality he was hardly the prodigy Balzac depicts, dashing off a drawn copy of Porbus’s painting in a matter of minutes, and signing it as an advertisement for himself. According to the leading Poussin expert of the twentieth century, Anthony Blunt, “In an age of virtuosi, [Poussin] was a plodder.” His “earliest surviving works show that at the age of thirty he had hardly attained the skill that would have been expected from a youth of eighteen in the academic studios of Rome and Bologna.” The Flemish master Franz Pourbus the Younger was in his early forties in 1612, and, as Balzac’s story implies, he was exceedingly successful as the leading portraitist of his era and, in particular, as the official portraitist of Marie de Medici, Queen Mother and Regent of France. He introduced into French art the grand manner of Venetian design, which he had mastered during a long residence in Italy, at the Court of Mantua. He was in any case a more considerable artist than Balzac depicts in the character of Porbus, and Poussin in fact owed his own high style in part to Pourbus’s example. In 1612, Pourbus was scarcely about to be surpassed in the Queen’s artistic favor by Rubens, as Balzac suggests, though in 1621—the year before Pourbus’s death—Rubens was to undertake the tremendous cycle of paintings which mythologized the life of Marie de Medici in the gallery of the Luxembourg Palace.

Frenhofer of course is entirely fictitious. But Balzac provides him with a real pedigree as the only student of Mabuse—the nickname of Jan Gossart, the Flemish painter who had died in 1532. Assuming Frenhofer had entered Mabuse’s studio at the age of twelve, he would be ninety-two when the story takes place, but still a powerful painter and something of a lover as well. Artistic and erotic powers are crucially linked in Balzac’s scheme. Porbus’s waning powers are emblematized through the fact that, unlike either Poussin or Frenhofer, he lacks a female companion. He has only a female patron. In an atmosphere in which love and art are the main currencies, worldly power counts for very little.

The Unknown Masterpiece
is an allegory of artistic glory and erotic love. The three painters are, so to speak, the spirits of Past, Present, and Future. For all the specifities of time and place, Balzac’s story takes place in a poetical setting: “The dim light of the staircase lent a further tinge of the fantastic: as if a canvas by Rembrandt were walking, silent and unframed, through the tenebrous atmosphere that great painter had made his own.”
In the successive versions of the story, which Balzac revised over the course of more than fifteen years, the character of Frenhofer continues to deepen; by contrast, the two historical figures are frankly presented as stereotypes. Nicolas (“Nick” as the text playfully designates him) is the embodiment of the Bohemian Youth, the Young Man from the Provinces, poor enough that Frenhofer is moved to give him money to buy a good warm coat, and good-looking enough to be the lover of a “mistress of incomparable beauty—not one defect!” as Porbus will panderingly describe her to Frenhofer. Poussin’s literary counterpart would have been Rodolphe in
Scènes de la vie de Bohème
by Balzac’s friend Henri Murger (which was published a decade after the 1837 version of
Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu
). If Poussin is the Artist of the Future, Porbus embodies the Present in a wonderfully Balzacian way: an artist who has achieved success in a style soon to be eclipsed by a shift in fashion to that of the Baroque—here embodied by Rubens, for whom Frenhofer expresses such contempt.

Frenhofer’s role is to embody the Past, having learned the secrets of the masters. But in fact he is an anachronism, since Balzac depicts him in part as he would one of his own contemporaries. The remarkable passages in which Frenhofer repaints Porbus’s picture of Marie Egyptienne disrobing in order to gain her passage to Jerusalem recapitulates what his biographers suggest was Balzac’s own experience in sitting for Louis Boulanger’s 1837 portrait of him. One chief difference between the first and the final recension of the story consists in Balzac having added a great deal of studio detail in depicting Frenhofer as a painter. These passages, according to one scholar, “Take up two fifths of the first part and over one fourth of the entire story...the most important of them shows him correcting Porbus’ painting according to his own principles.” These changes, based presumably on Balzac’s observations, are what give substance to what might otherwise be mere parable. And they illustrate how he uses his knowledge of reality as ballast for his imagination. In
Lost Illusions
, Balzac composed a portrait of a writer which so draws upon the detailed knowledge of royalties, proofs, advertising, plagiarism, and the kind of practical knowledge which only a writer of his day and age could have possessed that it is fact and fiction at once.

It is difficult to identify an actual artist from the 1830s whose painting exemplifies the maxims implied in Frenhofer’s discourse. The great painters of the age would have been Ingres and Delacroix, whose
Liberty Leading the People
provided the main buzz in the Salon of 1831, when
The Unknown Masterpiece
was first published in the periodical
. But the
of painting would have been fairly standard for anyone who had internalized the Romantic image of an artist. It would have to have been someone who painted the way Victor Hugo wrote. We can get a pretty fair sense of the Frenhoferian spirit from the following passage by John Ruskin, a serious draftsman and the great disciple of Turner. Ruskin is describing an episode in which he drew an aspen near Fontainebleau in 1842:

Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw it; and as I drew, the languor passed away. The beautiful lines insisted on being traced,—without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they “composed” themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last the tree was there, and everything I had thought before about trees, nowhere.

Notice the way the tree bodies itself forth “in the air.” It is the “air” that makes the difference between Frenhofer’s work and Porbus’s. “The air is so real you can no longer distinguish it from the air around yourselves,” Frenhofer boasts. “There’s no air between that arm and the background,” he says in criticism of Porbus’s figure. “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.”

Bringing reality to life has at once been the problem and promise of pictorial art. The history of painting as
has in effect been a history of progress—the triumph over visual appearance, which is the overarching theme of Giorgio Vasari’s great
Lives of the most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects
, first published in 1550; and more recently of Ernst Gombrich’s
Art and Illusion
. For Vasari, as for Balzac’s trinity of artists, that history culminates in Raphael. Thus Frenhofer removes his black velvet cap “to express his respect for this monarch of art.” It is in any case a history of technical breakthroughs: perspective, chiaroscuro, foreshortening, anatomical understanding, physiognomy, optics, and color theory—the things that were taught in the academies, and which the real Poussin had to struggle so to master. When Frenhofer explains why his painting is such a triumph, his speech is like boilerplate from a painter’s manual of the seventeenth century: “Some of these shadows cost me a lot of hard work.... I’ve managed to capture the truth of light and to combine it with the gleaming whiteness of the highlights, an opposite effort, by smoothing the ridges and textures of the paint itself submerging them in half-tones, have eliminated the very notion of drawing.”

All of this could be taught and learned. But something else had entered the concept of art as early as the late eighteenth century, in the writing of Kant, namely, the concept of the creative genius: “a talent,” Kant writes, “for producing that for which no definite rule can be given.” Hence the genius “does not know himself how he has come by his ideas; and he has not the power to devise the like at pleasure, or in accordance with a plan, and to communicate it to others in precepts that will enable them to produce similar products.” “Let’s not analyze it,” Frenhofer says. “It would only drive you to despair.”

Frenhofer means that there are no rules. “It is not the mission of art to copy nature”—for which rules can be stated or mechanisms like the camera be devised—“but to express it!” And this then requires genius. Geniuses, Ruskin wrote, “are more instinctive and less reasonable than other people.” He is referring to what happens when he, for example, draws a tree, and something beyond knowledge takes over: “I don’t think myself a great genius—but I believe I have genius.” Frenhofer puts it in his own way: “Artists aren’t mere imitators, they’re poets!” Somewhat inconsistently, Frenhofer appears to have imagined, in connection with the climactic work to which he devoted so many years, that knowledge really could do the work of genius—that knowledge, astutely applied, could not merely conquer appearance but conquer reality, and bring the subject literally to life. But Frenhofer, though unquestionably meant to be seen by us as a genius, aspires to something greater by far than that. He wants to perform magic.

15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Just Joshua by Jan Michael
Shawnee Bride by Elizabeth Lane
Firefly Summer by Pura Belpré
The Possibility of an Island by Houellebecq, Michel, Gavin Bowd
Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter
Peeling Oranges by James Lawless
Allegiance by Kermit Roosevelt
At the Midnight Hour by Alicia Scott