The Unknown Masterpiece (Gillette) by Honoré de Balzac, 1847

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by Honoré de Balzac, 1847

Given the sprawling abundance of La Comédie humaine, one does not immediately think of Honoré de Balzac as a master of concentration. In "The Unknown Masterpiece," however, we are challenged and delighted not by a work of immense scale but by a novella both stringent in design and resonant of meaning. It is a masterpiece of compression that invites critical expansion, as it were, in a great many different idioms and directions.

"The Unknown Masterpiece" was first published in the periodical L'Artiste in 1831. Its two sections were headed "Maître Frenhofer" and "Catherine Lescault." Expanded and amended, it appeared in the same year in volume 3 of Balzac's Romans et contes philosophiques. The first section was now headed "Gillette." For an edition of his Études philosophiques, published in 1837, Balzac made extensive additions, mainly involving Frenhofer's ideas on art. Other editions followed. In the edition published in 1847, Le Provincial à Paris, he made further differences, including a change in the title; the story was now called "Gillette." It is as "Gillette, or the Unknown Masterpiece" that Anthony Rudolf's excellent modern translation was published.

The textual history gives rise to many problems that need not concern us here, but the changes in the title are significant. We are initially invited to see the two points of focus as Frenhofer and Catherine Lescault, painter and subject and perhaps painter and mistress. The first change counterpoints Gillette, the model and mistress of another painter, against Catherine Lescault. But in the 1847 publication the entire work was retitled "Gillette." In narrative terms, although Gillette's role is a relatively slight one, she can be seen as a focus for many of the story's themes.

Gillette is the beautiful mistress and model—with one theme being the ultimate irreconcilability of the two roles—of the young Nicholas Poussin, an impoverished artist newly arrived in Paris. He visits uninvited the studio of the well-established François Pourbus. He crosses the threshold "after to-ing and fro-ing … with the lack of resolve of a lover not daring to enter the presence of his first mistress." Poussin's entrance is effectively a sexual initiation. Throughout the tale artistic creativity is intimately bound up with questions of sexuality in general and of sexual dominance in particular. He is a "poor neophyte," and initiation into another kind of mystery is also involved. At the studio of Pourbus, Poussin encounters a mysterious old man, Frenhofer, who fiercely criticizes Pourbus's work and in the process makes extravagantly high demands of the "finished" work of art. With "a supernatural sparkle" in his eyes and giving the impression that "there was a demon in [his] body," he adds a small number of brush strokes to Pourbus's painting of Saint Mary of Egypt, at one time a prostitute. The wealthy Frenhofer is himself a painter and has been working for 10 years on a picture of Catherine Lescault, who is identified in the early versions of the story as a courtesan, reworking and revising the painting constantly. He is said to have effectively bought from his master Mabuse the secret of giving to his figures an extraordinarily lifelike quality, but he does not allow anyone to see his work. When Poussin returns to his lodgings, it is to Gillette that he returns. He wishes her to sit for Frenhofer, which she feels to be tantamount to prostitution. For the first time Poussin begins to realize some of the agonizing conflicts set up by the conflicting demands of life and art.

The second section opens with a scene of negotiation that is central to the patterns of exchange that pervade the story. Poussin and Pourbus offer to "lend" Gillette to Frenhofer if in exchange he will allow them to see his canvas. In his reply it is to the language of sexual possession that Frenhofer instinctively turns. It would be to show them his "bride"; it would be prostitution of the woman who has for so long "smiled" at him "with every stroke of the brush." He eventually accepts the exchange, and, allowed to view his canvas, Poussin and Pourbus are shocked and bewildered to find only "confused masses of colours contained by a multitude of strange lines, forming a high wall of paint." Save a single foot, which "had somehow managed to escape from an unbelievable, slow and progressive destruction," they can find no recognizable image of a woman. Through his tears, however, Frenhofer insists that he can see Catherine and that she is "marvellously beautiful." Forgotten, Gillette weeps in a corner of the studio and declares her mingled hatred and love of Poussin. The next day it is learned that Frenhofer has burned both himself and his pictures.

One can fruitfully read "The Unknown Masterpiece" as a fable of what men do to women in the name of art or simply as an account of what men do to women. It can also be read as a prophetic fable of modern art or as a variation on the Faustian myth of the absolute pursued to the point of self-destruction. Insofar as the story confronts the aesthetic and philosophical problems inherent in the idea that art can present realistic images of life—there being implications in this idea for Balzac's own art as a novelist—it can be seen as an interrogation of the idea of artistic mimesis. The story is a vivid parable of the constant gap between the artist's conception and the realization of that conception, of the seduction of incompleteness and revision, and of infinite deferral. The relation between money and art, between creation and destruction, and between love and art are examined in complex patterns of antithesis and synthesis. We may think of Frenhofer in Faustian terms, but there are also important analogies with and allusions to other mythological structures and narratives, including the tales of Pygmalion and Galatea, Icarus, Orpheus, and Prometheus. Indeed, such is its richness that no reader is ever likely to feel that he or she fully knows "The Unknown Masterpiece."

—Glyn Pursglove

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The Unknown Masterpiece (Gillette) by Honoré de Balzac, 1847

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The Unknown Masterpiece (Gillette) by Honoré de Balzac, 1847