A cautionary tale of artistic obsession
Paris, 1612. A young aspiring painter nervously climbs the stairs to the studio of the master painter Porbus, in hopes that the great artist will take him on as an apprentice. When he arrives at the top of the staircase, however, he finds his idol already has company in the form of a mysterious old man. This aged personage turns out to be the master’s master, that is, the artist who taught Porbus all he knows about painting. The young novice is revealed to be Nicholas Poussin, who in Balzac’s time was one of the most celebrated painters in French history. Poussin, upon seeing the old man’s work, is amazed at the sublime talent of this aged master, who surpasses even the remarkable skill of Porbus. The old man, Maitre Frenhofer, has one great unfinished canvas secreted away in the back of his atelier. This piece of work is the great love of his life, and he refuses to share it with anyone. Poussin, filled with awe and admiration for this exceptional painter and overcome by an irresistible curiosity, decides he must see this painting at all costs.
The Hidden Masterpiece, also known as The Unknown Masterpiece, could be considered a long short story or a short novella. First published in 1831, it falls under the category of Philosophical Studies in Balzac’s body of work, the Comédie Humaine. In this tale Balzac explores the relationship between artists and their muses, the burden of genius, and the dangers of obsession. Frenhofer is an Icarus figure. He dares to rival the gods in his ability to create nature from nothing but palette and brush. He strives to materialize the ideal woman upon his canvas, just as Pygmalion sculpted Galatea from ivory. Poussin is the upstart whose ambition knows no bounds. He would sell his soul to the devil to decipher the old man’s secrets. To these men, art is the one invaluable necessity of existence; all else pales by comparison.
Balzac proves himself to be an expert writer on the subject of art, and his enthusiasm for the craft of painting is infectious. He does a beautiful job of recreating the atmosphere of the Renaissance painters’ studios and the arcane magic of creation practiced by Porbus and Frenhofer. The two masters engage in fascinating dialogues on such subjects as the proper method of modelling lifelike human flesh so as to create the mechanical illusion of three-dimensional depth while maintaining the living, breathing poetry of life itself. Given all the care and attention paid to setting up the scenario, the shocking climax of the story feels a bit rushed, and the ending too abrupt. Nevertheless, art lovers everywhere will take pleasure in this cautionary fable of the perils of creative obsession.
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