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The Unknown Masterpiece (La Comédie Humaine)

3.87 of 5 stars 3.87  ·  rating details  ·  1,194 ratings  ·  88 reviews
One of Honore de Balzac's most celebrated tales, "The Unknown Masterpiece" is the story of a painter who, depending on one's perspective, is either an abject failure or a transcendental genius--or both. The story, which has served as an inspiration to artists as various as Cezanne, Henry James, Picasso, and New Wave director Jacques Rivette, is, in critic Dore Ashton's wor ...more
Paperback, 160 pages
Published August 31st 2000 by NYRB Classics (first published 1831)
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This is one of Balzac’s little jewels.

From the very start Balzac sets its date and location. We are in 1612, in the early Regency of Maria de Medici, since only a couple of years had elapsed from the assassination of her husband and King Henri IV. Their son Louis XIII was then only eight years old. And the location is, as we can expect, Paris. But not just any place in Paris. We are in the Rue des Grands-Augustins, which is a perpendicular to the Boulevard of the same name which runs parallel to
A haunting story that I didn't quite understand but loved anyway. What is real? What is art? Which is more important, love or art? It seemed to be about the power of the act of art as even greater than the product. Is the old man's work a masterpiece or a disaster? Has he lost his mind in the pursuit of a beauty more real than reality, more perfect than is humanly possible to portray? This is certainly a story I will read again.
Maria  (Scratchbook)
Immaginate, solo per un attimo, di poter essere in grado di distinguere in voi stessi ciò che è importante da ciò che non lo è; pensate di poterlo vedere, distintamente, di poterlo toccare.
Provate a raccogliere l'essenziale e a lasciare il superfluo.
Guardate la vostra infanzia, osservate la vostra vita e portate via tutto quello che vi ha reso quello che siete ora: prendete le gioie, le risate, prendete i litigi, prendete le lacrime.
Non tralasciate i complessi d'inferiorità, le delusioni e i f
J.G. Keely
I must say that I greatly enjoyed Balzac's exploration of the idea that in art, it is not enough to simply copy reality. There is a reason that 'art' shares its root with 'artificial'. When we take the form of life and reproduce it on the page, or in sculpture, it becomes reduced and limited by the medium, losing its vitality and becoming corpselike. When we reduce a breathing, three-dimensional figure to the unmoving, flat plane of the canvas, depth is inevitably lost. So, as artists, we must r ...more
Jan 05, 2011 Lisa rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Lisa by: Balzac Yahoo Reading group
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jenny (Reading Envy)
This volume actually contains two stories - The Unknown Masterpiece and Gambara. Both are about artists (one painter, one composer) who are on the brink of modern styles, and both stories speak to what art is, how an artist becomes a master of craft, and what realities we are willing to embrace in order for the art to succeed.

I feel like either of these stories would be compelling discussion with music or art majors in college. These are both short but dense with ideas. I am not certain how read
Ο Μπαλζάκ, που μανιωδώς επιδιόρθωνε και ξαναδούλευε τα γραπτά του, γράφει το 1831 μια μικρή ιστορία με θέμα την αγωνία του καλλιτέχνη να φτάσει την τελειότητα. Ο ήρωάς του είναι ο ζωγράφος Frenhofer που διαρκώς δουλεύει το αριστούργημά του, σε βαθμό που στο τέλος χάνει τα λογικά του και το καταστρέφει. Αλλά δεν θέλω να μιλήσω για την ιστορία. Θέλω να μιλήσω για το παρακείμενο αυτής της έκδοσης από τις εκδόσεις Άγρα, για το υλικό που συνοδεύει το γραπτό του Μπαλζάκ.

Ειδικά σε κείμενα κλασικά όπως
This is the first I've read of Honore de Balzac, and I was not in the least disappointed. More poetry than prose, the writing was among the finest I've ever read, reminding me at times of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky and at other times of Djuna Barnes (whom T.S. Eliot said one must be trained in understanding poetry in order to fully appreciate). It was so easy to get lost in the detailed descriptions and the dialogue between the characters that I finished the relatively short book in just a day. "The ...more
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Elizabeth (Alaska)
Both of these stories have art and artists as their focus. The stories are part of the Balzac group called "Philosophical Studies." I have read little philosophy, and I'm not adept at gleaning philosophy in books nor putting my own outlook into any concise phrases.

The Unknown Masterpiece focuses on a painter whose masterpiece of 10-years work has never been seen. He seems to feel that he will be giving up a part of himself should he show it. Gambara is the story of a musician and operatic compos
Jenn McCollum
In the "The Unfinished Masterpiece" Balzac takes up the age-old debate about where nature ends and art begins. He does so, not surprisingly, through the most classic medium: the nude female form. Or, more precisely, he enters the debate of art versus nature by writing about the painting of the nude female form. This in itself -- before I considered the plot or the style or the significance of the short story -- already had me thinking of Etienne Gilson's argument that "true painters know full we ...more
I wanted to read Balzac, and "The Unknown Masterpiece" has a special place of appreciation in art history. Cezanne loved it, Picasso loved it, every Frenchman with a brush and a beret seems to have been cast in its spell.

Balzac captures a lot of what painting is about. It's the story of an artist trying to create work that rivals the creation of life; he's trying to make a painting that has the power of a living thing. But even though this story, along with the one it's paired with in this volu
Meghan Fidler
In "The Unknown Masterpiece" Balzac focuses on the social life which surrounds desire and pursuit. The first short story, the namesake of the collection, was my favorite of the two, partly because of my own fascination with being a model, or muse, for an artist. The novel contains the usual brilliant character descriptions, and both short stories are worth reading. Here is an excerpt from the first narrative, provided with the hopes that it might get a potential reader to pick up the collection: ...more
This is a short story concerning art, obsession, 'unclothed emperors' and madness. It was originally published in a newspaper for artists entitled L'Artiste in 1831.

A young artist by the name of Poussin visits the studio of a great painter named Porbus. Whilst there the master painter Frenhofer is critiquing Porbus's work and reveals that he is in possession of an even greater masterpiece. The two men are intrigued and events begin to unravel from there

Many artists admired Balzac, Van Gogh was a
Eliana Rivero
El centro de la historia es la perfección que necesita satisfacer al artista en cuanto a su obra o creación. Quizás esto lleve a la locura, quizás lleve a la muerte. Es tanto el perfeccionismo que terminan arruinando esa obra "perfecta" que buscaban, cuando ya estaba magnífica (o cuando todos los espectadores creen que ya lo estaba). No sé si los escritores también arruinan sus libros escribiendo de más y así, arruinando una novela o cuento, poesía. Quizás puedan arruinar su trabajo gracias al c ...more
The shortish title story started with a really entertaining/enlightening crit re: hypermimetic painting, then seemed unclearly smeared before ending interestingly re: the reception of abstract painting in the 17th century, not to mention re: any sort of under- or unrecognized creation. The longer novella that pads the book tells a similiar story, this time about an ecstatic composer, sort of like Cecil Taylor 125 years before ears would open to such music. My first Balzac. Definitely worthwhile ...more
Location 86:
La mission de l'art n'est pas de copier la nature, mais de l'exprimer!

Nous avons à saisir l'esprit, l'âme, la physionomie des choses et des êtres. Les effets! les effets! mais ils sont les accidents de la vie, et non la vie.

Location 103:
La Forme est, dans ses figures, ce qu'elle est chez nous, un truchement pour se communiquer des idées, des sensations, une vaste poésie.

Location 237:
Comme Orphée, je descendrais dans l'enfer de l'art pour en ramener la vie.

Location 396:
Les fruits de l
I actually had started a book with four stories by Balzac, but I gave up and only read these two stories and the start of a third.
Gambara was absolutely non-understandable for someone who has no clue about music - like me - so I had to struggle myself through 20 pages of the description of two operas. The actual story made no sense to me, it was boring and I didn't like te writing.
The Unknown Masterpiece was about visual art, at least I could imagine something with that, but still I couldn't en
Jeanne Thornton
The Unknown Masterpiece: pretty okay in the end, even if I guess the story's well known enough that the ending was zero surprise.

Gambara: kind of awful. The best part about it is the ridiculous experimental chef, and the zany hubris involved in having the titular Gambara just talk in detail that's at once excruciating and superficial about why "Robert le Diable" is a neat opera for something like 25 percent of the novella's total length. But there are really nice touches--the furniture made out
A successful painter and his protege visit an old master who has overworked himself. For ten years he has worked on his masterpiece without anyone yet obtaining the merest glimpse of it. Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu has also been translated as The Unknown Masterpiece.

I think I enjoyed this story more the first time I read it. Between the readings which were about ten years apart, I read Zola's novel The Masterpiece (L'oeuvre) which rather spoiled me for the second reading of Balzac's short story.
Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu(1831) ("The Unknown Masterpiece").
نیکولا پوسن، هنرمند گمنام، همراه با استاد فرنهافر، به کارگاه نقاش پوربوس می روند. فرنهافر، در مورد تابلوی بزرگ "ماری مصری" که پوربوس به تازگی تمام کرده، کارشناسانه نظر می دهد، و حین ستایش، معتقد است که اثر ناتمام است و با چند حرکت قلم مو، جلوه ی شگفت و تازه ای به "ماری مصری" می دهد. با این همه، فرنهامر اعتراف می کند که برای شاهکارش، بنام "زیبای زشت"، که ده سال روی آن کار کرده، هنوز مدل مناسبی پیدا نکرده است. پوسن معشوقه اش ژیلت را به عنو
Danny Daley
Balzac was one of France's greatest all time writers. This book collects two stories, one short and one novella, which take advantage of similar themes related to art and the tortured life of the artist, especially as the artist does not feel understood or able to capture what they hope to.

My score is an average of the two stories:

The Unknown Masterpiece - 4/5. I loved this short story. Stripped down to just 3 central characters; intriguing, romantic, and beaming with insight about the life and
Callie S.
Qual è il confine tra la perfezione e la patologia? Può la ricerca dell'assoluto trasformarsi nella sua negazione?
Balzac risponde a questo interrogativo con un breve ma eccezionale racconto, moderno nello stile e tragicamente visionario.
L'intensità con cui l'ossessione viene descritta, almeno, ha davvero il vigore e l'intensità di una pennellata.
Este libro me gustó al momento de ver su edición: pequeño, literal, de bolsillo. La portada del mismo es un cuadro de Johannes Vermeer. La historia comienza una fría mañana de diciembre en París, Francia, recién iniciado el siglo XVII cuando un pintor principiante acecha la puerta de un gran maestro: Proebus.

El libro se convierte en una disertación sobre la pintura; en una cascada de ideas sobre lo que dota de alma a un cuadro: los colores, el juego de luces y sombras. Durante la historia, escu
The Unknown Masterpiece - Balzac mixes fact with fiction in this tale of a mythical artistic genius named Frenhofer. It is a tale that plays on artistic conventions and the changes of style from past and present...what’s deemed acceptable or objectionable in art. What I found interesting is Balzac’s use of role reversal. Youth and old age are paired, and where one would think that the younger generation would be more accepting of a modern vision; it is the older generation that actually appears ...more
I love Balzac and was ready to love this book---which is actually comprised of two short stores: the Unknown Masterpiece and the almost unreadable Gambara.
The UM is pretty good, but much below the level of the other books and short stories by Balzac I've read. It's interesting in it's discussion of art, reality, perception, etc. Gambara tried to by another story about creativity, aesthetics, etc., but about music and composition---also about madness. It reminded me of the obnoxious character in
A Paris, au début du xviie siècle, trois peintres devisent de leur art. L'un est un jeune inconnu, promis à la gloire : Nicolas Poussin. Le deuxième, Franz Porbus, portraitiste officiel de feu le roi Henri IV, est, lui, dans la plénitude de son talent et au faîte de la renommée. Le troisième, maître Frenhofer, personnage plein de mystère qui a côtoyé les plus grands maîtres et assimilé leurs leçons, met la dernière main dans le plus grand secret à un bien mystérieux «chef-d'oeuvre». Il faudra qu ...more
Ben Dutton
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Etha Williams
The two stories collected together here ("The Unknown Masterpiece" and "Gambara") share remarkably similar themes and even plot details, to the point that the pairing seems at times more redundant than complimentary. Both stories tell of an artist (a painter in the first story; a composer in the second) struggling with a work that he believes to be a masterpiece but that others hold in considerably lower regard. One can read this two ways: that the artist is a misunderstood genius, or that he's ...more
Balzac, Honore de. THE UNKNOWN MASTERPIECE and GAMBARA. (this ed. 2001). ****. The first of these two novellas tells the story of three artists: Porbus, an up-and-coming artist in Paris, Poussin, a young artist on his way to an audience with Porbus, and Frenhofer, an older artist of some fame who is visiting Porbus at the same time. Both Porbus and Poussin are based on real artists of the early 17th century, though Balzac takes some artistic license with their real ages and personalities. Frenho ...more
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NYRB Classics: The Unknown Masterpiece, by Honoré de Balzac 1 4 Oct 30, 2013 09:26PM  
  • My Fantoms
  • Alien Hearts
  • The New York Stories of Edith Wharton
  • Mouchette
  • No Tomorrow
  • The Masterpiece (Les Rougon-Macquart, #14)
  • Novels in Three Lines
  • Rock Crystal
  • The Pure and the Impure
  • Sunflower
  • The Pilgrim Hawk
  • The World as I Found It
  • Witch Grass
  • Berlin Stories
  • Renoir, My Father
  • Great Granny Webster
  • Count d'Orgel's Ball
  • Love in a Fallen City
Honoré de Balzac was a nineteenth-century French novelist and playwright. His magnum opus was a sequence of almost 100 novels and plays collectively entitled La Comédie humaine, which presents a panorama of French life in the years after the fall of Napoléon Bonaparte in 1815.

Due to his keen observation of detail and unfiltered representation of society, Balzac is regarded as one of the founders o
More about Honoré de Balzac...

Other Books in the Series

La Comédie Humaine (1 - 10 of 86 books)
  • La Maison du Chat-qui-pelote
  • The Ball At Sceaux
  • Letters of Two Brides
  • The Purse
  • Modeste Mignon
  • A Start in Life (Dodo Press)
  • Albert Savarus
  • Vendetta
  • A Second Home
  • Domestic Peace
Père Goriot Eugénie Grandet Cousin Bette (Poor Relations) Lost Illusions (La Comédie Humaine) The Wild Ass's Skin

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“Young man,' Porbus said, seeing Poussin stare open-mouthed at a picture, 'Don't look at the canvas too long, it will drive you to despair.” 5 likes
“[Raphael's] great superiority is due to the instinctive sense which, in him, seems to desire to shatter form. Form is, in his figures, what it is in ourselves, an interpreter for the communication of ideas and sensations, an exhaustless source of poetic inspiration. Every figure is a world in itself, a portrait of which the original appeared in a sublime vision, in a flood of light, pointed to by an inward voice, laid bare by a divine finger which showed what the sources of expression had been in the whole past life of the subject.” 2 likes
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