Considereing that it is a mere 22 pages, it is amazing how much Balzac has managed to pack into The Unkown Masterpiece- there is the question of the relationship between art and life, between love and art and the search for perfection.
Balzac recounts the story of a 17th century painter Frenhofer who, in his search for perfection, spends ten years painting his masterpiece. However, when he shows it to two of his young admirerrs, they see nothing more than a canvas daubed with paint.
The old man, absorbed in reverie, did not listen to them; he was smiling at that imaginary woman.
“But sooner or later he will discover that there is nothing on his canvas!” cried Poussin.
“Nothing on my canvas!” exclaimed Frenhofer, glancing alternately at the two painters and his picture.
“What have you done?” said Porbus in an undertone to Poussin.
The old man seized the young man’s arm roughly, and said to him:
“You see nothing there, clown! varlet! miscreant! hound! Why, what brought you here, then? – My good Porbus,” he continued, turning to the older painter, “can it be that you, you too, are mocking at me? Answer me! I am your friend; tell me, have I spoiled my picture?”
Porbus hesitated, he dared not speak; but the anxiety depicted on the old man’s white face was so heart-rendering that he pointed to the canvas saying:
Frenhofer gazed at his picture for a moment and staggered.
“Nothing! Nothing! And I have worked ten years!
He fell upon a chair and wept.
“So I am an idiot, a madman! I have neither talent nor capability! I am naught save a rich man who, in walking, does nothing more than walk! So I shall have produced nothing!”
Balzac ends the story in a way that one can see the almost King Learish tragedy of the painter- betrayed by his own work, as well as the story of perfection in which the work of art arrives before the aesthetic required to appreciate it has developed.
In either case, it is a story of art as transgression and a tragedy par excellence.
Image: Picasso’s rendition of Frenhofer painting The Unkown Masterpiece. Acknowledgement