The Unknown Masterpiece; and, Gambara
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The Unknown Masterpiece; and, Gambara (La Comédie Humaine)

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3.9 of 5 stars 3.90  ·  rating details  ·  793 ratings  ·  54 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 1837)
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Community Reviews

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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...more
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
Ben
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
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...more
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
Harry
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...more
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
J.
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...more
Lee
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
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...more
Marija
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
Carol
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...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
Tony
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
Chris
Sep 12, 2013 Chris rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: brian gates
This “New York Review of Books (NYRB) Classics” reprint is actually two longish short stories by Balzac, “The Unknown Masterpiece”, written in 1832, and “Gambara” written in 1837. Caveat: this is the first time I have read Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850).

As this is a translation (by Richard Howard, some poet, translator, and professor at Columbia University), I can’t really comment on Balzac’s prose directly, but I can certainly speak about his storytelling, his construction of characters, and his...more
Jim
Be sure to read the introduction before starting the book, as it's helpful in understanding the three main characters. The book is a must for anyone interested in portrait painting. There's an interesting section in which an old painter says tp a younger one, "You fill in your outline with flesh tones mixed in advance on your palette, carefully keeping one side darker than the other, and because you glance now and then at a naked woman standing on a table, you think you're copying nature - you c...more
Ludo
Op de achterflap van de Nederlandse vertaling, uitgegeven bij de Arbeiderspers, staat o.a. "Dit fameuze boek zouden onze schilders ten minste een keer per jaar moeten herlezen." (Paul Cezanne.)
Je kan het op een avondje uitlezen (amper 40 p) Dus waarom ook niet?
Ondanks dat het geschreven is in 1832, en zich afspeelt in 1612, blijft het hedendaagse kunstenaars (en critici) boeien.
Wat begint als een liefdesverhaal en eindigt als een esthetische beschouwing, is het verhaal van elke schilder die het...more
John
Great Tales About Artists Struggling To Create Masterpieces

At first glance "The Unknown Masterpiece" and "Gambarra" are dissimilar tales about a painter and a composer. Yet they share in common the main protagonist's struggle to make a masterpiece; the finest painting and opera ever conceived. Unfortunately in "The Unknown Masterpiece" the painter Frenhofer is so dissatisfied with his work that he paints it anew, and it is seen by his friends, with disastrous consequences for all. In "Gambarra"...more
Michael Armijo
I'm not sure how I stumbled on this book. I think it was referenced in another book I was reading and I added it to my WISH LIST on Amazon.com. I finally ordered it and it arrived as a mere pamplet of only 40 pages or so. Of course Honore de Balzac is well-known as a literary genius and this book was known to inspire many gifted artists (Picasso, Cezanne, etc). I did take away some interesting insight as an artist myself. It's worth your reading time if you're creative in any way. This is a rare...more
Taylor
Short story Balzac wrote in the 1830s about Frenhofer, a (fictional, 17th-century) artist so fanatically obsessed with capturing his model perfectly on the canvas that he winds up producing only an unintelligible chaos of paint — with just a foot barely visible in the corner of the picture. Picasso drew illustrations for the story in the 1920s, and Cézanne reportedly said, with tears in his eyes, “Frenhofer, c’est moi.” In his introduction, Arthur Danto argues, not implausibly, that Frenhofer’s...more
Aygul A.
You may know your syntax thoroughly and make no blunders in your grammar, but it takes this and that to be a poet
Joe
the unknown masterpiece - 7.5
bambara - 6.5
Ryan Chapman
I've never read Balzac before--my interested was piqued by James Wood's adoration of the novelist. This book is actually composed of two longish stories, both concerning art and the ways it can break an artist. ...They're both so-so. I'd like to read a full Balzac novel to get a better sense of the writer. And also a full-lenth biography, as apparently the man lived an extraordinary life. (Favored apocrypha include his death from a caffeine overdose and his pronouncement of wanting to become the...more
Aubrey
These are two really great short stories. In the first, four characters are drawn together by their passion for art. One of them - the inspired genius (or the humiliated failure) is the center of the work and has served as inspiration for artists as varied as Cezanne, Henry James, and Picasso. It is a bit of a philisophical look on modern art. Gambara is simply tragic. How crazy must a artist be, anyway?
kate
An interesting story, but what Balzac really has going for him here is an 1830s art-historical take on figure painting that presupposes the move from the classicism of Titian (et. al.) to Manet in the 1860s, and perhaps even De Koonig in the 20th century. Not only does Balzac secure a position as an art critic through this tale, but sets the stage for later, longer works (specifically Zola) in the same vein.
Jerry Reeves
A book I've been searching for for many years. A teacher at school spoke of it (33 years or so ago!) but for some reason I had in my head that it was written by Jean Paul Sartre, hence the long search. I finally came across this by accident recently so was finally able to read it. It's pretty short, but nicely written and had additional appeal for me with my recent increased interest in art history.
Matt
Two short stories/novellas make up this book. The first, the title story is the shorter one, and I probably would have given the book three stars if it had ended there. The second Gambara made a big difference. The two stories combine into a much more interesting commentary on the nature of art, and being an artist. Gambara also struck me as a better, more developed, story.
Pooyan Assar
Loved this book. It's more poetry than prose. It's the kind of work that tempts you to read it aloud all the time. The only thing that keeps you from doing that, is the fear of being tagged a maniac. You can always read it aloud in your own mind though. It's your own little, almost mischievous, game that nobody can interfere with. What a delight!
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NYRB Classics: The Unknown Masterpiece, by Honoré de Balzac 1 3 Oct 30, 2013 09:26PM  
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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
More about Honoré de Balzac...
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“[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
“You have wavered uncertainly between two systems, between drawing and coloring, between the painstaking phlegm, the stiff precision, of the old German masters, and the dazzling ardor, the happy fertility, of the Italian painters.” 1 likes
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