Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece: Intellect versus Emotion

Balzac
Honore de Balzac

Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) wrote a short story The Unknown Masterpiece about an aging master artist who toils ten years on the “perfect” painting of an idealized figure of a woman he falls in love with. However, no one can see the true beauty of his beloved except him, and so he destroys all of his paintings and is found dead the next day. What is Balzac trying to convey in this allegory about the nature of true artistic genius as well as the quest for immortality?

Balzac, considered to be the founder of social realism (a school of literature that also includes Flaubert, Zola and Proust), may have been the first person to have anticipated the consequence of the misunderstood abstract artist. Indeed, some have pointed out that Balzac was primarily a visionary, similar to many of his characters who were possessed with a single-minded determination to accomplish their aim. An individual, obsessed by some transcendental purpose or passion, may very well drive himself to the very edge or beyond what is thought to be acceptable or possible. Some may even consider this individual to be a “genius.”

Nicolas Poussin
Nicolas Poussin’s
Self Portrait

The Unknown Masterpiece takes place in 1612 in France. The three main characters are Nicolas Poussin and Francois Porbus (actual historical figures), and the Master, a fictional character around whom the story is centered. Poussin, an emerging talent in the early 1600s, eventually becomes, by some accounts, France's foremost artist of the 17th century. On the other hand, Porbus had been a court artist (famous as Henri IV's painter) and recently was replaced by the court with Rubens. Portrayed in the story as artistically superior to both Porbus and Poussin, the Master tells Porbus “the mission of art is not to copy nature but to express it! You're not a cheap copyist but a poet.” We get the sense that the Master is equating art with a transcendental quality.

The assertions by the Master, at least in part, reflected the debate that was going on in the 1600s between those who favored drawing and line and others who emphasized color in painting. Those of the ancient classical school favored drawing as superior because it appealed to the mind (the intellect); the opposing view put much greater emphasis on vivid colors and their appeal to the senses or emotions, pointing to paintings by Rubens and Titian as examples. From history, we know that Poussin became a proponent of the drawing-and-line school of thought.

Venus of Urbino by Titian
Venus of Urbino by Titian

In the story, it turns out that the Master has been working on a painting of a female nude for ten years, endeavoring to produce a perfect work of art. The Master intones, “Oh, to achieve this glorious result, I've studied thoroughly the great masters of color, I've analyzed and penetrated layer by layer of paintings by Titian, that king of light; like that sovereign painter, I sketched in my figure with a light tint with a heavily loaded brush…Then I went back over my work and, by means of gradations and glazes that I made successively less transparent, I rendered the heaviest shadows and even the deepest blacks.” He goes on in this fashion at some length, describing his technique and achievement but in the end, he concludes “And yet I'm still not satisfied…You see, just like ignorance, an excess of knowledge leads to negation. I have doubts about my painting.”

In response to the Master's endeavors, both Porbus and Poussin had become intensely curious, believing that they were in the presence of true artistic genius. If only they could discover the Master's secrets, then they too would be considered great talents. The Master is seeking a beautiful woman to pose for him so he can assure himself that his perfect painting has indeed transcended nature. Poussin offers his reluctant girlfriend, Gillette, on the condition that he and Porbus can see the Master's painting. Once the Master sees the beautiful Gillette, he readily agrees. She poses for the Master and, in the privacy of his studio, the Master confirms his achievement, and Porbus and Poussin are invited in to see his masterpiece.

Foot
The Master’s “Nude”

“You weren't expecting so much perfection!” said the Master. He goes on to say “You're standing in front of a woman, and expecting a picture. There's such great depth to this canvas…Where is art? Lost, vanished! Here are the very forms of a girl. Haven't I really captured her coloring” and he goes on in that vein believing indeed that “the flesh is throbbing.” But the two viewers are mystified. “Can you make out anything?” asks Poussin. “No. What about you?” replies Porbus. “All I see there is colors in a jumbled heap, contained within a multitude of peculiar lines that form a wall of paint,” declares Poussin. Shortly though, upon closer examination, the two painters see “emerging from the chaos of colors…a living foot.” They realize that there is a woman underneath all the paint, but they just can’t see her.

Although they try to conceal their feelings, the Master catches on and collapses in tears, momentarily overcome with doubts, feeling that he has wasted ten years in hopeless pursuit of perfection. But he soon recovers, declaring that “she is beautiful.” He throws the two painters out of his studio, saying “farewell, my little friends,” and dies that night after burning all of his canvases.

What are we to make of this story by Balzac? The Master may have been an artistic genius, ahead of his time, producing an abstract representation of the human figure. Porbus and Poussin, wedded to the classical esthetic of the imitation of nature, could only see, in their words “a delicious foot” emerging from one corner of the Master's painting. Everything else was a jumble of colors and lines. But to the Master, he had achieved perfection. In his own words, “yes, my friend….one must have faith, faith in art, and one must live with one's work for a long time in order to produce a creation like this. Some of these shadows cost me many labors. Look, on the cheek, beneath the eyes, there's a light penumbra that, if you observe in nature, will seem all but uncapturable to you.” And the Master continues his description and belief in his painting until Poussin declares “there's nothing on his canvas.” Of course, we know from the story that that isn't true—there is something on the canvas, a new esthetic representing the beginning of abstract expressionism. Through his writing, Balzac, like the Master, is proposing a new way of creating art through a true expression of the soul, which some would say is true artistic genius.

Plato by Raphael
Plato from The School
of Athens
by Raphael

The painter's drive for perfection and immortality through the production of enduring art, most vividly described in Plato's Symposium as the passion of every creative artist, is dramatically demonstrated in the story. While Poussin essentially exchanges Gillette for the Master's secrets, believing those secrets would propel him and his art to eternal fame, he is disappointed with the results. He was seeking a classical painting appealing to the intellect, but instead he is confronted with the Master’s “perfect” painting created by the senses, emotions, and imagination.

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