‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ by Honoré de Balzac

The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac, 1832

The magic trick:

Making the artistic philosophy espoused by one of the characters truly brilliant

This story makes me very sad.

I’ll start there. It makes me very sad.

But my own particular emotional response aside, let’s note that this is very much a story of ideas. It’s an essay about art. It’s a philosophical consideration pulled through a plot.

And for it to work, the character of Frenhofer must be very smart. He must speak very well about the nature of art. He must talk about painting in ways that capture our attention, our imagination and our mind. That’s a ton of pressure for an author to take on when writing a story.

Remarkably, “The Unknown Masterpiece” pulls it off.

Frenhofer’s philosophy of art doesn’t simply succeed in making the story work; it’s been studied ever since by actual painters!

And that’s quite a trick on de Balzac’s part.

The selection:

“The aim of art is not to copy nature, but to express it. You are not a servile copyist, but a poet!” cried the old man sharply, cutting Porbus short with an imperious gesture. “Otherwise a sculptor might make a plaster cast of a living woman and save himself all further trouble. Well, try to make a cast of your mistress’s hand, and set up the thing before you. You will see a monstrosity, a dead mass, bearing no resemblance to the living hand; you would be compelled to have recourse to the chisel of a sculptor who, without making an exact copy, would represent for you its movement and its life. We must detect the spirit, the informing soul in the appearances of things and beings. Effects! What are effects but the accidents of life, not life itself? A hand, since I have taken that example, is not only a part of a body, it is the expression and extension of a thought that must be grasped and rendered. Neither painter nor poet nor sculptor may separate the effect from the cause, which are inevitably contained the one in the other. There begins the real struggle! Many a painter achieves success instinctively, unconscious of the task that is set before art. You draw a woman, yet you do not see her! Not so do you succeed in wresting Nature’s secrets from her! You are reproducing mechanically the model that you copied in your master’s studio. You do not penetrate far enough into the inmost secrets of the mystery of form; you do not seek with love enough and perseverance enough after the form that baffles and eludes you. Beauty is a thing severe and unapproachable, 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. Form is a Proteus more intangible and more manifold than the Proteus of the legend; compelled, only after long wrestling, to stand forth manifest in his true aspect. Some of you are satisfied with the first shape, or at most by the second or the third that appears. Not thus wrestle the victors, the unvanquished painters who never suffer themselves to be deluded by all those treacherous shadow-shapes; they persevere till Nature at the last stands bare to their gaze, and her very soul is revealed.


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