Sydney Morning Herald Column

The Unknown Masterpiece

Published August 10, 2021
Pablo Picasso, from 'Le Chef-d'œuvre inconnu' (1931)

In Honoré de Balzac’s story, The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu), the painter, Frenhofer, tells us: “the aim of art is not to copy nature, but to express it. You are not a servile copyist, but a poet!”

This brief tale, first published in 1831, has remained a favourite of artists down the ages. The Unknown Masterpiece is a classic in the truest sense: a work rediscovered by each new generation, always open to fresh interpretations. It has inspired some of the greatest artists of modern times, and one of the longest and most pretentious movies, Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse (1991).

Michel Piccoli as Frenhofer and Emmanuelle Béart as Gillette in Jacques Rivette’s interminable ‘La Belle Noiseuse’ (1991)

In Paris, in 1612, the young artist Nicolas Poussin goes to visit Frans Pourbus, a painter he admires. By chance his visit coincides with that of an elderly man called Frenhofer, who severely criticises Pourbus’s work. Poussin protests but Pourbus himself is deferential. It isn’t until Frenhofer picks up a brush and transforms a painting with a few deft strokes that the young artist realises he’s in the presence of genius.

When Poussin and Pourbus visit Frenhofer’s studio he describes the masterpiece on which he has been working for a decade. A portrait of Catherine Lescault, a courtesan of legendary beauty, he wants the painting to go beyond art and make viewers feel they are looking at the woman herself. He is allowing no-one to see the picture until it is finished.

Frenhofer’s problem is that after so many years he needs to find an ideally beautiful model in order to finish the work. Poussin, mad to lay eyes on the painting, persuades his lover, Gillette, to pose for Frenhofer. She agrees with extreme reluctance, seeing it as a test of their relationship, as Poussin appears to love art more than he loves her.

Pablo Picasso, one of multiple Balzac portraits from Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu’ (1931)

Spoiler alert! When Frenhofer declares the painting finished and invites Poussin and Pourbus to admire his handiwork, they are confronted with a bizarre spectacle. “I can see nothing there but confused masses of colour and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint,” exclaims Poussin. But in the corner, they spy a woman’s foot emerging from the chaos, a foot of sublime beauty.

At first Frenhofer sees only a magnificent portrait but responding to his friends’ amazement he suddenly realises what he has done. “Nothing! Nothing! After ten years of work…” he shouts. In the last lines we learn Frenhofer will die that night after first burning his canvases.

Such are the bare bones of the story, but a summary can’t convey Balzac’s acute understanding of the way an artist thinks. Cézanne may have been openly scornful of L’œuvre (1886), the novel about an artist written by his childhood friend, Zola, but he was smitten with Balzac’s story. “Frenhofer, c’est moi!” he is reported to have said.

The poet Rilke drew the connection in one of his letters on Cézanne: “Balzac sensed long ahead that in painting, something so tremendous can suddenly present itself, which no-one can handle.”

The ‘discovery’, for Rilke was that in painting “there are no contours but rather many vibrating transitions.”

Paul Cézanne, ‘The Painter (After “The Unknown Masterpiece” by Balzac)’, (1868-71)

This must have appealed to another admirer of the story, Pablo Picasso. Responding to a commission from the art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, Picasso completed a series of 13 etchings for a limited edition of Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu published in 1931. These prints, largely variations on the favourite theme of artist and model, do not dispense with contours, but they are remarkable for a mixture of simple, hollow forms and densely worked clusters of lines. They have an unfinished quality that recalls Frenhofer’s belief that a painting cannot be completed like any other ‘job’.

There was a further reason Picasso could identify with Frenhofer. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) had been his personal ‘unknown masterpiece’ – a picture so raw and original it left its first viewers flabbergasted. The work, which features angular, distorted figures with faces taken from Iberian art and African tribal masks, spent 9 years in Picasso’s studio before it was exhibited in 1916. During this incubation period it confused many of the artist’s friends just as effectively as Frenhofer’s masterpiece had puzzled Poussin and Pourbus.

Braque and Derain had their doubts, as did Apollinaire, but the art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, was a fan, recognising the revolutionary nature of the painting.  “It cannot be called other than unfinished,” he wrote, “even though it represents a long period of work.”

Pablo Picasso, ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907)

The American critic, Dore Ashton, teased out the legacy of Balzac’s story in her marvellous, multi-layered book, A Fable of Modern Art (1980). The most obvious connection is with abstract art. Frenhofer’s ambition to make a portrait so real it transcends the painted image, is strongly reminiscent of the spiritual ambitions of the Abstract Expressionists who abandoned figuration in favour of a higher truth.

Mark Rothko declared: “My art is not abstract; it lives and breathes.” His blurry rectangles allegedly embodied human emotions such as “tragedy, ecstasy, despair” – and indeed, many viewers have wept or had a quasi-religious experience in front of those canvases.

The Unknown Masterpiece is also notable in the way it sexualises painting. “Beauty is a thing severe and unapproachable,” says Frenhofer, “never to be won by a languid lover. You must lie in wait for her coming and take her unawares, press her hard and clasp her in a tight embrace, and force her to yield.”

Rarely has the eros of painting been expressed so vividly and shamelessly. Not very PC perhaps, but certainly passionate. One can imagine how this appealed to Picasso, and perhaps also to Cézanne, whose early paintings flirted with fantasies of sexual violence.

“My painting is no painting,” Frenhoder insists, “it is a sentiment, a passion. She was born in my studio, there she must dwell in maiden solitude, and only when clad can she issue thence. Poetry and women only lay the last veil aside for their lovers.”

This sets up a discord with Gillette’s love for Poussin, which seems to be permanently damaged by the artist’s desire that she should model – presumably nude – for Frenhofer. Submitting her body to the ravages of the old artist’s gaze is a martyrdom. If Poussin can allow this to happen it confirms that she will never be more than a secondary passion, after painting.

Pablo Picasso, from ‘Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu’ (1931)

Allowing his mistress to be transformed into an effigy diminishes the ineffable power of love – a power that cannot be summed up in an image. For Gillette: “Love is a mystery; it can only live hidden in the depths of the heart. You say, even to your friend, ‘Behold her whom I love,’ and there is an end of love.”

A painting is made to be displayed but love perishes when it is turned into a spectacle, or when a lover is treated like an object – or perhaps when a perfect illusion is preferred to the flawed and messy nature of human contact. Balzac’s story not only provides a window into the psychology of the artist it reveals the diabolical power of art that seeks to improve on life. It could be argued that all great artists – and many lesser ones – have had a touch of that diabolism. John Olsen, for instance, recently defined the artist as a selfish being who cannot be judged by the standards of “ordinary morality”.

And yet, for all his fanaticism, Frenhofer’s ego is destroyed when he realises his striving for perfection has extinguished the work of a decade. Today we can interpret the colours and lines on his canvas as the act of an Abstract Expressionist, striving to express deep emotion by abandoning the recognisable image, but in 1612, or even 1837, there was no such thing as abstract art. Frenhofer’s striving for perfection has led to madness and delusion. One of his earlier statements: “No one thanks us for what lies beneath,” now takes on a terrible irony, because his masterpiece lies concealed beneath “a dead wall of paint”. The woman he sought to bring to life has been entombed; the obsessive questioning of every aspect of art has ended in one almighty negation.

The Unknown Masterpiece is ultimately about the limits of art – the point where an artist’s Godlike ambition is undone by their humanity. Balzac is showing Poussin that he should embrace Gillette, and life, if he is not to follow in Frenhofer’s footsteps. Yet history tells us the real Poussin would go on to be one of the leading purveyors of ideal, Neo-Classical forms. Faced with a choice between art and life the great artist will not recognise the distinction.


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 7 August, 2021