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The Unknown Masterpiece

(La Comédie Humaine #71)

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3.87  ·  Rating details ·  2,620 ratings  ·  200 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 ...more
Paperback, 160 pages
Published August 31st 2000 by NYRB Classics (first published August 1831)
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Glenn Russell
Jan 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorite-books

Artist and His Model (1926) - by Pablo Picasso

This New York Review Books edition is indeed a classic since it includes not only two highly philosophical works by French master Honoré de Balzac on the nature of art and music but also an illuminating introductory essay by philosopher of art/art critic Arthur C. Danto. For the purposes of my review I will focus the author's tour de force, The Unknown Masterpiece.

The story revolves around three painters - Porbus, Poussin and Frenhofer. Porbus can
...more
Kalliope

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
...more
Lisa
Jun 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“Hé! Hé! Malgré le malheur des temps, nous causerons peinture!”

One of those unforgettable, perfect stories on the purpose of art and literature!

Written by the master storyteller Balzac in the first half of the 19th century, recapturing a century of wild debates on the question: “What is art? And what is the role of the artist?”, it somehow offers a conclusion to the classical era and prophetically opens up the discussion that will dominate the century to come: should an artist be a Pygmalion,
...more
Teresa
Feb 25, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
As I read the story, I knew Nicolas Poussin was a real artist, but I didn't realize Frans Porbus was until afterward. Not that that changes anything. I can only guess Balzac used the names of two real artists to give his tale and the fictional Frenhofer even more authenticity than his words already seem to do.

A.S. Byatt's Portraits in Fiction has a breakdown and interpretation of this story that says it all (except that I found Frenhofer's 'lectures' a bit boring, like, well, lectures).
Chrissie
“The aim of art is not to copy nature, but to express it.”

This is a line taken from The Unknown Masterpiece by Honoré de Balzac. The work is too short to even classify as a novella. It was first published in 1831. Praised by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne, I was curious, and so I had to give it a try.

The story is about art. In my view, the one line quoted above is its central tenet. So much is said with just a few words. This I like.

The story goes on to explore how a person
...more
Steven Godin
Jan 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: france, fiction
Ten years in the making but seen by no one, aspiring artist Nicolas Poussin and established artist Francois Porbus attempt to catch a glimpse of legendary artist Frenhofer’s so called masterpiece after being invited to his studio, where Nicolas is awestruck by Frenhofer’s talent.

Nicolas is young, confident, and full of passion, and believes he can conquer the world. He studies under the established royal court artist Porbus, but one such meeting is interrupted by the appearance of the elderly
...more
Το Άθχημο Γατί Καρολίνα
The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-D'Œuvre Inconnu) was first published in August 1831 in the journal "L'Artiste" and shortly thereafter, in the third volume of the collection "Romans et Contes philosophiques".

Although described by Satiat as a "hastily written version of a fairy tale" by ETA Hoffmann entitled "La Leçon de violon", translated by Loève-Veimars for the aforementioned magazine in April of the same year, the two stories have little to nothing in common. Hoffmann's short, humoristic
...more
Dax
Mar 09, 2019 rated it liked it
Balzac focuses on the fine line between genius and madness. Frenhofer is an interesting character and I loved the scene in which he alters Porbus' portrait while discussing the virtues of 'true art'. The second story, Gambara, is similar thematically, although I didn't enjoy the discussion of musical composition as much. A good little book and I can see why artists such as Picasso held it in such high regard. Strong three stars.
J.G. Keely
Feb 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: short-story, realism
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 ...more
Justin Evans
Jul 10, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: fiction
In his essay 'The Death of the Author,' William Gass fires off a machine gun at Roland Barthes, and Balzac, thanks to Barthes's "S/Z", is taken out as collateral damage. "Balzac relishes [bourgeois] stereotypes and pat phrases and vulgar elegancies; his taste is that of the turtle which has found itself in a robust soup; he, too, would flatter the reader, the public, the world which receives him until it receives him well and warmly; and Roland Barthes, for all his fripperies like like on a ...more
Ellie
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.
Jigar Brahmbhatt
Sep 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
I am yet to discover a story that deals with artistic obsession so overtly and dramatically. The masterpiece at the center is a teasing device used by Balzac to play with the idea of perception, and to ultimately question the many interpretations of the "ideal" an artist aspires to. There is a lore that the house in Paris where this story is set was purchased by Picasso because he saw a parallel of himself in the central character. It is not unbelievable if you think about it. The old painter ...more
Lisa
Mar 29, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Lisa by: Balzac Yahoo Reading group
Shelves: france, c19th, kindle
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
L.S. Popovich
Easily the best entry point into Balzac's impressive oeuvre, these two short novellas display the key features of this literary master's ability. The first feature is astounding, complex description, and the second is dramatic, intelligent dialogue. The latter is worthy of a grandiose stage play and the former is often as striking as a prose poem. Combining these approaches, Balzac allows the characters take on intense life during the simple dramatic context he constructs.

"The Unknown
...more
Ben
Oct 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
14 October 2012

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
...more
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
...more
Dorcas
I'm not the best judge of short stories since they're really not my thing. But I did enjoy this, sort of. The writing is good, even though I was left with more questions than answers when I'd finished. Maybe its too deep for me, I don't know.

But if I was to give the Master painter in this story a piece of advice (and who am I?) I'd say "beauty in art is knowing when to call it finished. "

There's such a thing as overbeating egg whites.

Its only 30 pages and is free. Read it for yourself and see
...more
Christine
2016 NYRB Renewal Freebie for Book of the Month Club.

I enjoyed the first story, but was less enamored of the second.
Eleanor
Mar 29, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art, 2017-books, classics
Thank you to Lisa for writing about this short but profound story. A tragic tale about perfection and destruction, and the danger in pursuing the former too far.
Dagny
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.
Jenn McCollum Avery
Oct 30, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: art-of-seeing
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 ...more
Marzio Salamina
Aug 20, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
...more
Harry
Nov 29, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
...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
...more
Meghan Fidler
Jul 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Lee Klein
Dec 05, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Kamila
May 05, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nyrb
I'm sorry, Balzac! There are some worthwhile philosophical points about art, particularly painting and music, but when I dive into a story, I want more than just essay (the characters aren't really people, but vehicles for ideas). To be fair, though, the form of the novel hadn't really taken off yet at the time this was written (1830s).

"There's no escaping it; too much knowledge, like too much ignorance, leads to a negation. My work is ... my doubt!"
Tyler Jones
Oct 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Two short stories, written five years apart, that both explore artists pushing the boundaries of their chosen mediums. Balzac makes these stories about so much more; vanity, love, ego and eros. The second story, Gambara, suffers a from several very long passages in which entire operas are re-told in mind-numbing detail, but the title story is a gem.
Katya
Mar 31, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literature
A really great little novella by Balzac. Anyone who has any interest in art absolutely must read it. The depth of Balzac's perception of art is just as amazing, as his poetic talent. Amazing. Really sublime.
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NYRB Classics: The Unknown Masterpiece, by Honoré de Balzac 1 6 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 fine detail and unfiltered representation of society, Balzac is regarded as one of the
...more

Other books in the series

La Comédie Humaine (1 - 10 of 90 books)
  • La Maison Du Chat-Qui-Pelote
  • The Ball At Sceaux
  • The Purse
  • Vendetta
  • Madame Firmiani
  • A Second Home
  • Domestic Peace
  • The Imaginary Mistress
  • Study of a Woman
  • Albert Savarus
“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.” 7 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.” 4 likes
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