Honore de Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” not only explores the nature of art through the discourse of three painters with varied expertise, but it also focuses on an “ailment” which may have afflicted some artists and perfectionists alike: obsession. Moreover, for such a short story, “The Unknown Masterpiece” is made compact by the additional ideas that are encountered. There is the question of the subjectivity of art interpretation and the morality of posing nude for art’s sake.
I believe that the story is itself a hidden masterpiece, not because it is not popular but because despite its short length, it is able to tackle abstract and complex ideas in the world of the three painters, Frenhofer, Porbus and Poussin.
This is something a reader will not expect from such a short story. In the story, obsession is linked to Frenhofer’s belief that showing his erotic masterpiece is equivalent to prostitution. “Show my creature, my spouse? –tear off the veil with which I have chastely hidden my joy? It would be prostitution!
For ten years I have lived with this woman; she is mine, mine alone! She loves me! ” (Balzac) The painter’s obsession, however, does not solely live in his “masterpiece”; his whole being is enveloped by obsession.
In fact, when he talks about what he considers to be the perfect painting, he becomes frenzied like a mad poet instead of a scholarly painter. He criticizes the paintings of his host, Francois Porbus declaring the works to be only technical portrayals of nature. Frenhofer has strong beliefs when it comes to art and he is vocal about these beliefs.
I think that at several points he comes through as a raving, insane person not as an art expert. He can also be very condescending, calling the young and impoverished painter, Nicolas Poussin “my little friend” (Balzac). In my opinion, his delusion of grandeur has prevented him from considering that his work, his hidden and unknown, masterpiece may only be a masterpiece in his eyes. This is remarkably different from Porbus’ acceptance of his criticism “The contempt which the old man affected to pour upon the noblest efforts of art, his wealth, his manners, the respectful deference shown to him by Porbus, his work
guarded so secretly,–a work of patient toil, a work no doubt of genius, judging by the head of the Virgin which Poussin had so naively admired” (Balzac). The deference given to Frenhofer by Porbus and Poussin creates a more mythical feel to the hidden “masterpiece”. The story also tackles the subjectivity of art interpretation. It seems to say that people judge a piece of art based on the artist. Once an artist has become established, everything that he or she creates becomes a masterpiece in the eyes of its audience.
There seems to be a more genuine quality to appreciating the works of emerging young artists who do not have a name to save their exhibits. As the only one living that has been trained by “The Master”, Frenhofer makes it his inherent privilege that his works be accepted as genius, especially one that he has chosen to keep for himself. The fact that the said masterpiece is unknown to other people’s eyes makes Porbus and Poussin more curious and more convinced that indeed, there is a brilliant work of art somewhere that has not graced public exhibits.
This goes to show that creating an air of mystery can provide someone publicity and a somewhat mystic quality. Another theme in the novella is the question of the morality of posing nude. Many artists claim that nudity does not elicit malicious thoughts when it comes to art. Nudes are supposed to be celebrations of the human form. However, in the story, Frenhofer feels that showing his sensual painting is equivalent to prostituting its model. Gillete, Poussin’s beloved, feels the same way.
She believes that Poussin no longer loves her because he has presented her to become Frenhofer’s nude model, thus suggesting that she also feels prostituted. Balzac’s story suggests on the other hand that Gillete has nothing to worry about from Frenhofer. He is indeed one of those lofty minded painters who paint to achieve masterpieces and will not devour her with lascivious glances. In fact, his beloved painting is not what the others expect it to be. The realization of how the others perceive his painting creates a new awareness in Frenhofer.
He is not able to take the strain of such a frustration: “On the morrow Porbus, alarmed, went again to visit Frenhofer, and found that he had died during the night, after having burned his paintings” (Balzac). I believe that Balzac’s novella “The Unknown Masterpiece” lets us glimpse into the world of artists, their struggles to become famous and remain respected. Poussin is at the beginning of his career and he risks even his relationship with Gillete in order to get further in the world of art.
Porbus has already proved to be a highly skilled technical painter and still gives deference to old masters. Last but not the least, Frenhofer has achieved such a high status in his field that disappointments come harsher and expectations are much higher. In each of their respective journeys, they encounter some moral and ethical questions just like in any other profession. They have to struggle between being true to their art and beliefs and obsessively aiming to become someone well known.
Balzac, Honore de. 28 April 2008 <http://www. fullbooks. com/The-Hidden-Masterpiece. html>.