The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac

Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu
Also translated as The Hidden Masterpiece

Part I: Gillette

This short story turned out to be a delightful study of what makes great art. There are three painters, young Nicolas Poussin, the middle-aged court painter Franz Pourbus (whom Balzac calls Porbus)–both of whom were real 17th Century French painters–and Balzac’s invented older artist, Maitre Frenhofer.

Frenhofer visits Porbus at his lodgings, where he meets young Poussin, who is building up the courage to knock on the door. Porbus lets both of them in, assuming that Poussin was with Frenhofer. A conversation ensues which forms Part I of the story, called Gillette after Poussin’s mistress. Frenhofer criticizes Porbus’s latest work:

“Your lady is assembled nicely enough, but she’s not alive. You people think you’ve done it all once you’ve drawn a body correctly and put everything where it belongs, according to the laws of anatomy! You fill in your outline with flesh tones mixed in advance on your palette, carefully keeping one side darker than the other, and because you glance now and then at a naked woman standing on a table, you think you’re copying nature–you call yourselves painters and suppose you’ve stolen God’s secrets. . . .

“Look at your saint, Porbus! At first glance she seems quite admirable, but look again and you can see she’s pasted on the canvas–you can never walk around her. She’s a flat silhouette, a cutout who can never turn around or change position.”

It’s a few minutes before both Frenhofer and Porbus realize that Poussin is unknown to both of them. They test him by asking him to make a quick sketch. He passes the test, and the two established painters willingly accept him as a party to their conversation. They move to Frenhofer’s studio where all three have dinner.

Frenhofer discusses a painting of a nude that he has been working on for ten years that continues to elude him. He seeks the perfect model whom he can render perfectly.

After the dinner, Poussin returns home and tries to convince his mistress Gillette to pose nude for Frenhofer. She resists, thinking: “He doesn’t love me anymore!” She feels that, after this request, she loves him somewhat less than before.

Part II: Catherine Lescault

Porbus goes to visit Frenhofer at his studio several months after the action of the First Part. Frenhofer is bemoaning the fact that several details of his painting of Catherine Lescault (whom we never actually meet) are wrong, and he blames Catherine herself for that. Porbus very “generously” tells Maitre Frenhofer about the perfect beauty of Poussin’s mistress Gillette. No sooner does he do that than Gillette and Poussin themselves appear at the door of the studio, sniping at each other over Poussin offering her services as a model.

When they go in, Frenhofer is enchanted with Gillette. “Oh, leave her with me just for a moment, . . . and you can compare her to my Catherine. Yes, I consent.” Earlier, Frenhofer had refused such an offer when made by Porbus, but now that he has seen Gillette . . .

Poussin begins to regret his offer. He offers to thrust his sword into the old painter’s heart if Gillette has anything to complain about in Frenhofer’s behavior. Gillette climbs up to Frenhofer’s inner sanctum while the two younger painters remain downstairs.

Finally, Frenhofer calls the two upstairs, saying that now his work is perfect. They approach the canvas:

“All I see are colors daubed one on top of the other and contained by a mass of strange lines forming a wall of paint. . . .”

Coming closer, they discerned, in one corner of the canvas, the tip of a bare foot emerging from this chaos of colors, shapes, and vague shadings, a kind of incoherent mist; but a delightful foot, a living foot! They stood stock-still with admiration before this fragment which had escaped from an incredible, slow and advancing destruction. That foot appeared like the torso of some Parian marble Venus rising out of the ruins of a city burned to ashes.

It almost seems as if Poussin and Porbus had stepped into the 20th Century and were looking at a work of abstract expressionism with a few realistic touches. It is a real coup that Balzac carries off when he has the aging artist show off his masterwork to, in effect, confusion and rejection.

While Porbus tries to put the best face on Frenhofer’s masterpiece–the result of 10 years of work–Poussin lets out with an Emperor’s New Clothes comment: “But sooner or later he’ll notice that there’s nothing on his canvas!”

This sets Frenhofer to weeping: “I’m an imbecile then, a madman with neither talent nor ability. . . . I’ve created nothing!”

Also in tears is Gillette, sitting unobtrusively in a corner: “Kill me!” she cried [to Poussin]. “I’d be vile to love you still–you fill me with contempt. I admire you, yet you horrify me. I love you, and I think I hate you already!”

Meanwhile, Frenhofer covers his painting with a cloth and shooes out his visitors. That farewell did not sit well with Porbus. When he visits the studio again the next day, he is told that the old master died during the night.


Read it:
Katharine Prescott Wormeley translation
George Burnham Ives translation

Summary by Jim, March 2008


5 comments on “The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This appears to be a simple little story about a great artist of huge talent who labors away for 10 years on a great masterpiece. When it is finally revealed, it appears to be a dark canvas of little in the way of discernible objects except for a tiny foot at one corner. I found in researching this work that there is an explosion of articles about it, far more than a 22 page short story would normally generate. This is because we are not sure if the artist deluded himself or was a genius ahead of his time. Picasso and Cezanne loved the story and related it to their adventures in abstract art, but abstract art was unknown during Balzac’s time. A good guess is that Balzac meant to show the danger of delusion in the artist, but, who knows – he could have been ahead of his time and recognized the meaningfulness of non-representational art.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Zola wrote an entire novel titled L’Œuvre (The Masterpiece) which is eerily similar to this short story but of course covers a much larger period of the artist’s life and also goes into the workings behind the scenes at the Salon. The artist in Zola’s story is Claude, the son of Gervaise who was taken in by a well-to-do man who had recognized his talent.


  3. S_Pablo says:

    A four hour film was made out of this little book. “La Belle Noiseuse” by Jacques Rivette. A true masterpiece, I believe, by a filmmaker that was influenced, like most of the Nouvelle Vague directors, by Balzac so much that he films almost the same way that Balzac wrote…


    • Thank you! I am not familiar with Jacques Rivette, but sounds like I’d like his movies.


      • S_Pablo says:

        Well, he’s one of my favorites, but some of his films are a little… “difficult”.

        Actually, he seems to have a fixation with “Histoire des Treize”. He has also filmed “La Duchesse de Langeais” and a, hard to find and harder to watch, 12-hour film called Out 1, that is loosely based on “Histoire des Treize”.

        If you want you can watch a scene from this film here:


        In this scene, Eric Rohmer (another Nouvelle Vague director) plays a Balzac expert that helps one of the main characters of the film…


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