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When you paint a picture for the court, you do not put your whole soul into it ; to courtiers you sell lay figures duly coloured. My painting is no painting, it is a sentiment, a passion. Poetry and women only lay the last veil aside for their lovers. Nay, only their form and semblance. But this picture, locked away above in my studio, is an exception in our art. It is not a canvas, it is a woman — a woman with whom I talk.
I share her thoughts, her tears, her laughter. Would you have me fling aside these ten years of happiness like a cloak? Would you have me cease at once to be father, lover, and creator? She is not a creature, but a creation. I will give him my treasures ; I will give him pictures by Correggio and Michel Angelo and Titian ; I will kiss his footprints in the dust ; but — make him my rival!
Shame on me. I am a lover first, and then a painter. Yes, with my latest sigh I could find strength to burn my Belle Noiseuse ; but — compel her to endure the gaze of a stranger, a young man and a painter! I would kill him on the morrow who should sully her with a glance! Nay, you, my friend, I would kill you with my own hands in a moment if you did not kneel in reverence before her!
Now, will you have me sub- mit my idol to the careless eyes and senseless criticisms of fools? You say, even to your friend, " Behold her whom I love," and there is an end of love. His hands shook. Porbus was so amazed by the passionate vehemence of Frenhofer's words that he knew not what to reply to this utterance of an emotion as strange as it was profound.
Was Frenhofer sane or mad? Had he fallen a victim to some freak of the artist's fancy? Would it be possible to come to terms with this singular passion? Mine will be faith- ful to me for ever. But you may die before you will find such flawless beauty as hers, even in Asia, and then your picture will be left unfinished.
Perfumes are burning on a golden tripod by her side. You would be tempted to lay your hand upon the tassel of the cord that holds back the curtains ; it would seem to you that you saw her breast rise and fall as she breathed ; that you beheld the living Catherine Lescault, the beautiful courtesan whom men called La Belle Notseuse. And yet — if I could but be sure ' ' Then go to Asia,' returned Porbus, noticing a certain indecision in Frenhofer's face. And with that Porbus made a few steps towards the door. By that time Gillette and Nicolas Poussin had reached Frenhofer's house.
The girl drew away her arm from her lover's as she stood on the threshold, and shrank back as if some presentiment flashed through her mind. You are my conscience and my glory. Go home again ; I shall be happier, perhaps, if you do not ' ' Am I my own when you speak to me like that? No, no ; I am like a child. Let us go in. I shall still live on as a memory on your palette ; that shall be life for me afterwards.
He hurried her, trembling from head to foot, into the presence of the old painter. There stood Gillette in the artless and childlike attitude of some timid and innocent Georgian, carried off by brigands, and confronted with a slave merchant. A shame-fast red flushed her face, her eyes drooped, her hands hung by her side, her strength seemed to have failed her, her tears protested against this outrage.
Poussin cursed himself in despair that he should have brought his fair treasure from its hiding-place. The lover overcame the artist, and countless doubts assailed Poussin's heart when he saw youth dawn in the old man's eyes, as, like a painter, he discerned every line of the form hidden beneath the young girl's vesture.
Then the lover's savage jealousy awoke. The Unknown Masterpiece 27 'Ah! She had spirit enough to suffer in silence, but she had no strength to hide her joy. His vanity seemed to be engaged for his semblance of womanhood ; he anticipated the triumph of the beauty of his own creation over the beauty of the living girl. She was watching Poussin and Porbus closely. She raised her head proudly ; she glanced at Frenhofer, and her eyes flashed ; then as she saw how her lover had fallen again to gazing at the portrait which he had taken at first for a Giorgione — ' Ah!
He never gave me such a look. I will plunge it into your heart at the first cry from this young girl ; I will set fire to your house, and no one shall leave it alive. Do you understand? Gillette took comfort from the young painter's bearing, and yet more from that gesture, and almost forgave him for sacrificing her to his art and his glorious future. Porbus and Poussin stood at the door of the studio and looked at each other in silence. The young man kept his hand on the hilt of his dagger, and his ear was almost glued to the door. The two men standing in the shadow might have been conspirators waiting for the hour when they might strike down a tyrant.
He was radiant with delight. I can show her now with pride. Everything was in disorder and covered with dust, but they saw a few pictures here and there upon the wall. They stopped first of all in admiration before the life-sized figure of a woman partially draped. These are my failures,' he went on, indicating the enchanting compositions upon the walls of the studio.
This scorn for such works of art struck Porbus and Poussin dumb with amazement. They looked round for the picture of which he had spoken, and could not discover it. You are looking for a picture, and you see a woman before you. There is such depth in that canvas, the atmosphere is so true that you cannot dis- tinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is The Unknown Masterpiece 29 art? Art has vanished, it is invisible! It is the form of a living girl that you see before you. Have I not caught the very hues of life, the spirit of the living line that defines the figure.
Is there not the effect produced there like that which all natural objects present in the atmo- sphere about them, or fishes in the water? Do you see how the figure stands out against the background? Does it not seem to you that you could pass your hand along the back? But then for seven years I studied and watched how the daylight blends with the objects on which it falls. And the hair, the light pours over it like a flood, does it not? Her breast — ah, see! Who would not fall on his knees before her?
Her pulses throb. She will rise to her feet. They moved to the right and left of the picture j then they came in front, bending down and standing upright by turns. Its living delicate beauty held them spell- bound. This fragment that had escaped an incompre- hensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town. Both artists turned involuntarily to Frenhofer. They began to have some understanding, vague though it was, of the ecstasy in which he lived.
What toil some of those shadows have cost me. Do you think that that effect has not cost unheard-of toil? Look closely at my work, and you will understand more clearly what I was saying as to methods of modelling and outline. Look at the high lights on the bosom, and see how by touch on touch, thickly laid on, I have raised the surface so that it catches the light itself and blends it with the lustrous whiteness of the high lights, and how by an opposite process, by flattening the surface of the paint, and leaving no trace of the passage of the brush, I have succeeded in softening the contours of my figure and enveloping them in half-tints until the very idea of drawing, of the means by which the effect is produced, fades away, and the picture has the roundness and relief of nature.
The Unknown Masterpiece 31 Come closer. You will see the manner of working better ; at a little distance it cannot be seen. Just there, it is, I think, very plainly to be seen,' and with the tip of his brush he pointed out a patch of transparent colour to the two painters. Porbus, laying a hand on the old artist's shoulder, turned to Poussin with a ' Do you know that in him we see a very great painter? The old man, deep in his own musings, smiled at the woman he alone beheld, and did not hear.
The old man clutched the young painter's arm and said, 'Do you see nothing? What brought you here into my studio? I am your friend. Tell me, have I ruined my picture after all? Frenhofer looked for a moment at his picture, and staggered back. After ten years of work. I am only a rich man, who works for his own pleasure, and makes no progress.
I have done nothing after all! Suddenly he rose and stood proudly before the two painters. You would have me think that my picture is a failure because you want to steal her from me! All at once the painter once more became the lover. I admire you, and I loathe you! I love you, and I feel that I hate you even now. He gave the two painters a profoundly astute glance that expressed to the full his suspicions and his contempt for them, saw them out of his studio with impetuous haste and in silence, until from the threshold of his house he bade them ' Good-bye, my young friends!
Porbus, in anxiety, went again on the morrow to see Frenhofer, and learned that he had died in the night after burning his canvases. Paris, February De Balzac. At a dirriiy remote period in the history of Brabant, communication between the Island of Cadzand and the Flemish coast was kept up by a boat which carried passengers from one shore to the other.
Middelburg, the chief town in the island, destined to become so famous in the annals of Protestantism, at that time only numbered some two or three hundred hearths j and the prosperous town of Ostend was an obscure haven, a straggling village where pirates dwelt in security among the fishermen and the few poor merchants who lived in the place. But though the town of Ostend consisted altogether of some score of houses and three hundred cottages, huts or hovels built of the driftwood of wrecked vessels, it nevertheless rejoiced in the possession of a governor, a garrison, a forked gibbet, a convent, and a burgomaster, in short, in all the institutions of an advanced civilisation.
Who reigned over Brabant and Flanders in those days? On this point tradition is mute. Let us confess at once that this tale savours strongly of the marvellous, the mysterious, and the vague ; elements which Flemish narrators have infused into a story retailed so often to gatherings of workers on winter evenings, that the versions vary widely in poetic merit and incongruity of c 34 Christ in Flanders detail. It has been told by every generation, handed down by grandames at the fireside, narrated night and day, and the chronicle has changed its complexion some- what in every age.
Like some great building that has suffered many modifications of successive generations of architects, some sombre weather-beaten pile, the delight of a poet, the story would drive the commentator and the industrious winnower of words, facts, and dates to despair. The narrator believes in it, as all superstitious minds in Flanders likewise believe ; and is not a whit wiser nor more credulous than his audience.
But as it would be impossible to make a harmony of all the different renderings, here are the outlines of the story j stripped, it may be, of its picturesque quaintness, but with all its bold disregard of historical truth, and its moral teaching approved by religion — a myth, the blossom of imaginative fancy ; an allegory that the wise may in- terpret to suit themselves. To each his own pasturage, and the task of separating the tares from the wheat. The boat that served to carry passengers from the Island of Cadzand to Ostend was upon the point of departure ; but before the skipper loosed the chain that secured the shallop to the little jetty, where people embarked, he blew a horn several times, to warn late lingerers, this being his last journey that day.
Night was falling. It -was scarcely possible to see the coast of Flanders by the dying fires of the sunset, or to make out upon the hither shore any forms of belated passengers hurrying along the wall of the dykes that surrounded the open country, or among the tall reeds of the marshes. The boat was full. Let us put off! Just at that moment a man appeared a few paces from the jetty, to the surprise of the skipper, who had heard no sound of footsteps.
The traveller seemed to have Christ in Flanders 35 sprung up from the earth, like a peasant who had laid himself down on the ground to wait till the boat should start, and had slept till the sound of the horn awakened him. Was he a thief? As soon as the man appeared on the jetty to which the boat was moored, seven persons who were standing in the stern of the shallop hastened to sit down on the benches, so as to leave no room for the new-comer.
It was the swift and instinctive working of the aristocratic spirit, an impulse of exclusiveness that comes from the rich man's heart. Four of the seven personages belonged to the most aristocratic families in Flanders. First among them was a young knight with two beautiful greyhounds ; his long hair flowed from beneath a jewelled cap ; he clanked his gilded spurs, curled the ends of his moustache from time to time with a swaggering grace, and looked round disdainfully on the rest of the crew.
A high-born damsel, with a falcon on her wrist, only spoke with her mother or with a churchman of high rank, who was evidently a relation. All these persons made a great deal of noise, and talked among themselves as though there were no one else in the boat ; yet close beside them sat a man of great importance in the district, a stout burgher of Bruges, wrapped about with a vast cloak.
His servant, armed to the teeth, had set down a couple of bags filled with gold at his side. Next to the burgher came a man of learning, a doctor of the Univer- sity of Louvain, who was travelling with his clerk. This little group of folk, who looked contemptuously at each other, was separated from the passengers in the forward part of the boat by the bench of rowers. The belated traveller glanced about him as he stepped on board, saw that there was no room for him in the stern, and went to the bows in quest of a seat.
They were all poor people there. The poorer passengers, therefore, received him with demonstrations of respect that provoked scornful titter- ing at the other end of the boat. An old soldier, inured to toil and hardship, gave up his place on the bench to the new-comer, and seated himself on the edge of the vessel, keeping his balance by planting his feet against one of those transverse beams, like the backbone of a fish, that hold the planks of a boat together.
A young mother, who bore her baby in her arms, and seemed to belong to the working class in Ostend, moved aside to make room for the stranger. There was neither servility nor scorn in her manner of doing this ; it was a simple sign of the goodwill by which the poor, who know by long experience the value of a service and the warmth that fellowship brings, give expression to the openhearted- ness and the natural impulses of their souls ; so artlessly do they reveal their good qualities and their defects.
The stranger thanked her by a gesture full of gracious dignity, and took his place between the young mother and the old soldier. Immediately behind him sat a peasant and his son, a boy ten years of age. A beggar woman, old, wrinkled, and clad in rags, was crouching, with her almost empty wallet, on a great coil of rope that lay in the prow. The sea is smiling at a squall, the witch! I can feel the swell by the way the rudder works, and the storm in my wounds. The gay company seated in the stern amused themselves by watching the brawny arms, the tanned faces, and sparkling eyes of the rowers, the play of the tense muscles, the physical and mental forces that were being exerted to bring them for a trifling toll across the channel.
So far from pitying the rowers' distress, they pointed out the men's faces to each other, and laughed at the grotesque expressions on the faces of the crew who were straining every muscle ; but in the fore part of the boat the soldier, the peasant, and the old beggar woman watched the sailors with the sympathy naturally felt by toilers who live by the sweat of their brow and know the rough struggle, the strenuous excitement of effort.
These folk, moreover, whose lives were spent in the open air, had all seen the warnings of danger in the sky, and their faces were grave. The young mother rocked her child, singing an old hymn of the Church for a lullaby. He is the Master,' said the old woman, ' but I think it will be His good pleasure to take us to Himself. Streaks of fiery red glared from behind the masses of crimson-flushed brown cloud that seemed about to un- loose a furious gale. There was a smothered murmur of the sea, a moaning sound that seemed to come from the depths, a low warning growl, such as a dog gives when he only means mischief as yet.
After all, Ostend was not far away. Perhaps painting, like poetry, could not prolong the existence of the picture presented by sea and sky at that moment beyond the time of its actual dura- tion. Art demands vehement contrasts, wherefore artists usually seek out Nature's most striking effects, doubtless because they despair of rendering the great and glorious charm of her daily moods ; yet the human soul is often stirred as deeply by her calm as by her emotion, and by silence as by storm. For a moment no one spoke on board the boat. Every one watched that sea and sky, either with some presenti- ment of danger, or because they felt the influence of the religious melancholy that takes possession of nearly all of us at the close of the day, the hour of prayer, when all nature is hushed save for the voices of the bells.
The sea gleamed pale and wan, but its hues changed, and the surface took all the colours of steel. The sky was almost overspread with livid grey, but down in the west there were long narrow bars like streaks of blood ; while lines of bright light in the eastern sky, sharp and clean as if drawn by the tip of a brush, were separated by folds of cloud, like the wrinkles on an old man's brow.
The whole scene made a background of ashen greys and half- tints, in strong contrast to the bale-fires of the sunset. A great wave caught up the boat, carried it high on its crest, only to plunge it, as it were, into the trough of the sea that seemed to yawn for them. At this mighty upheaval, this sudden outbreak of the wrath of the sea, the company in the stern turned pale, and sent up a terrible cry, ' We are lost!
As he spoke, the clouds immediately above their heads were torn asunder by the vehemence of the wind. The grey mass was rent and scattered east and west with ominous speed, a dim uncertain light from the rift in the sky fell full upon the boat, and the travellers beheld each other's faces. All of them, the noble and the wealthy, the sailors and the poor passengers alike, were amazed for a moment by the appearance of the last comer.
His golden hair, parted upon his calm, serene forehead, fell in thick curls about his shoulders ; and his face, sublime in its sweetness and radiant with divine love, stood out against the surrounding gloom. He had no contempt for death ; he knew that he should not die. But if at the first the company in the stern forgot for a moment the implacable fury of the storm that threatened their lives, selfishness and their habits of life soon prevailed again. He is just like a dog, he will die without a struggle,' said the doctor.
He had scarcely pronounced this highly judicious dictum when the storm unloosed all its legions. The wind blew from every quarter of the heavens, the boat span round Hke a top, and the sea broke in. My poor child! Who will save my baby? Now is the time ; in the name of the devil who is leaving you in this world, be your own Providence! Every one knows that the channel is fear- fully dangerous ; I have been to and fro across it these thirty years.
Am I facing a storm for the first time to-night? I will hold you by your fair hair and bring you safely to the shore ; but I can only save you. The lady was on her knees entreating absolution of the Bishop, who did not heed her. In the beautiful eyes the knight read a vague feeling of filial piety, and spoke in a smothered voice.
If it is His pleasure to take your mother to Himself, it will doubtless be for her happiness — in the other world,' he added, and his voice dropped still lower. The Dame of Rupelmonde was lady of seven fiefs beside the barony of Gavres. The girl felt the longing for life in her heart, and for love that spoke through the handsome adventurer, a young miscreant who haunted churches in search of a prize, an heiress to marry, or ready money.
The Bishop bestowed his benison on the waves, and bade them be calm ; it was all that he could do. He thought of his concubine, and of the delicate feast with which she would welcome him ; perhaps at that very moment she was bathing, perfuming herself, robing herself in velvet, fastening her necklace and her jewelled clasps, and the perverse Bishop so far from thinking of the power of Holy Church, of his duty to comfort Christians and exhort them to trust in God, that worldly regrets and lover's sighs mingled with the holy words of the breviary.
By the dim light that shone on the pale faces of the company, it was possible to see their differing expres- sions as the boat was lifted high in air by a wave, to be cast back into the dark depths; the shallop quivered like a fragile leaf, the plaything of the north wind in the autumn; the hull creaked, it seemed ready to go to pieces. Fearful shrieks went up, followed by an awful silence. There was a strange difference between the behaviour 42 Christ in Flanders of the folk in the bows and that of the rich or great people at the other end of the boat.
The young mother clasped her infant tightly to her breast every time that a great wave threatened to engulf the fragile vessel ; but she clung to the hope that the stranger's words had set in her heart. Each time that her eyes turned to his face she drew fresh faith at the sight, the strong faith of a helpless woman, a mother's faith. She lived by that divine promise, the loving words from his lips ; the simple crea- ture waited trustingly for them to be fulfilled, and scarcely feared the danger any longer.
The soldier, holding fast to the vessel's side, never took his eyes off the strange visitor. He copied on his own rough and swarthy features the imperturbability of the other's face, applying to this task the whole strength of a will and intelligence but little corrupted in the course of a life of mechanical and passive obedience.
So emulous was he of a calm and tranquil courage greater than his own, that at last, perhaps unconsciously, something of that mysterious nature passed into his own soul. His admira- tion became an instinctive zeal for this man, a boundless love for and belief in him, such a love as soldiers feel for their leader when he has the power of swaying other men, when the halo of victories surrounds him, and the magical fascination of genius is felt in all that he does. The poor outcast was murmuring to herself — ' Ah! Have I not suffered enough to expiate the sins of my youth? I have sinned indeed!
God is not a Lombard Christ in Flanders 43 usurer. I may have killed people good and bad at ran- dom in my time, but I am not afraid of the resurrection. They will get absolution for their sins,' said the old woman. At the one end of the boat stood riches, pride, learning, debauchery, and crime — human society, such as art and thought and education and worldly interests and laws have made it ; and at this end there was terror and wailing, innumerable different impulses all repressed by hideous doubts — at this end, and at this only, the agony of fear.
Above all these human lives stood a strong man, the skipper ; no doubts assailed him, the chief, the king, the fatalist among them. He was trusting in himself rather than in Providence, crying, ' Bale away! But the helpless poor at the other end of the wherry! The mother rocking on her bosom the little one who smiled at the storm, the woman once so frivolous and gay, and now tormented with bitter remorse ; the old soldier covered with scars, a mutilated life the sole reward of his unflagging loyalty and faithfulness.
This veteran could scarcely count on the morsel of bread soaked in tears to keep the life in him, yet he was always 44 Christ in Flanders ready to laugh, and went his way merrily, happy when he could drown his glory in the depths of a pot of beer, or could tell tales of the wars to the children who admired him, leaving his future with a light heart in the hands of God. Lastly, there were the two peasants, used to hardships and toil, labour incarnate, the labour by which the world lives.
These simple folk were indifferent to thought and its treasures, ready to sink them all in a belief; and their faith was but so much the more vig- orous because they had never disputed about it nor analysed it. Such a nature is a virgin soil, conscience has not been tampered with, feeling is deep and strong ; repentance, trouble, love, and work have developed, purified, concentrated, and increased their force of will a hundred times, the will — the one thing in man that resembles what learned doctors call the Soul.
The boat, guided by the well-nigh miraculous skill of the steersman, came almost within sight of Ostend, when, not fifty paces from the shore, she was suddenly struck by a heavy sea and capsized. The stranger with the light about his head spoke to this little world of drowning creatures — ' Those who have faith shall be saved ; let them follow me! The young mother at once took her child in her arms, and followed at his side across the sea. The soldier too sprang up, saying in his homely fashion, ' Ah!
I would follow you to the devil ' ; and without seeming astonished by it, he walked on the water. The old worn-out sinner, believing in the omnipotence of God, also followed the stranger. The two peasants said to each other, ' If they are walking on the sea, why should we not do as they do? Thomas tried to follow, but his faith tottered ; he sank in the sea more than once, and rose again, but the third time he Christ in Flanders 45 also walked on the sea. The miser had had faith, and had risen to go, but he tried to take his gold with him, and it was his gold that dragged him down to the bottom.
The learned man had scoffed at the char- latan and at the fools who listened to him ; and when he heard the mysterious stranger propose to the passengers that they should walk on the waves, he began to laugh, and the ocean swallowed him.
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The girl was dragged down into the depths by her lover. The Bishop and the older lady went to the bottom, heavily laden with sins, it may be, but still more heavily laden with incredulity and confidence in idols, weighted down by devotion, into which alms-deeds and true religion entered but little. The faithful flock, who walked with a firm step high and dry above the surge, heard all about them the dread- ful whistling of the blast ; great billows broke across their path, but an irresistible force cleft a way for them through the sea.
These believing ones saw through the spray a dim speck of light flickering in the window of a fisherman's hut on the shore, and each one, as he pushed on bravely towards the light, seemed to hear the voice of his fellow crying, ' Courage! In this way they reached the shore. When they were all seated near the fisherman's fire, they looked round in vain for their guide with the light about him. The sea washed up the steersman at the base of the cliff on which the cottage stood ; he was clinging with might and main to the plank as a sailor can cling when death stares him in the face ; the Man went down and rescued the almost exhausted seaman ; then he said, as he held out a succouring hand above the man's head — ' Good, for this once ; but do not try it again j the example would be too bad.
The Convent of Mercy was built for sailors on this spot, where for long afterwards so it was said the foot- prints of Jesus Christ could be seen in the sand ; but in , at the time of the French invasion, the monks carried away this precious relic, that bore witness to the Saviour's last visit to earth. There at the convent I found myself shortly after the Revolution of I was weary of life. If you had asked me the reason of my despair, I should have found it almost impossible to give it, so languid had grown the soul that was melted within me.
The west wind had slackened the springs of my intelligence. I wandered on, musing on the doubtful future, on my blighted hopes. Gnawed by these gloomy thoughts, I turned mechanically into the convent church, with the grey towers that loomed like ghosts through the sea mists. I walked with careless eyes along the side aisles that opened out before me like vast portals, ever turning upon their hinges.
It was scarcely possible to see, by the dim light of the autumn day, the sculptured groinings of the roof, the delicate and clean-cut lines of the mouldings of the graceful pointed arches. The organ pipes were mute. There was no sound save the noise of my own footsteps to awaken the mournful echoes lurking in the dark Christ in Flanders 47 chapels. I sat down at the base of one of the four pillars that supported the tower, near the choir. Thence I could see the whole of the building. I gazed, and no ideas connected with it arose in my mind.
I saw with- out seeing the mighty maze of pillars, the great rose windows that hung like a network suspended as by a miracle in air above the vast doorways. I saw the doors at the end of the side aisles, the aerial galleries, the stained glass windows framed in archways, divided by slender columns, fretted into flower forms and trefoil by fine filigree work of carved stone. A dome of glass at the end of the choir sparkled as if it had been built of precious stones set cunningly. In contrast to the roof with its alternating spaces of whiteness and colour, the two aisles lay to right and left in shadow so deep that the faint grey outlines of their hundred shafts were scarcely visible in the gloom.
I gazed at the marvellous arcades, the scroll-work, the garlands, the curving lines, and arab- esques interwoven and interlaced, and strangely lighted, until by sheer dint of gazing my perceptions became con- fused, and I stood upon the borderland between illusion and reality, taken in the snare set for the eyes, and almost light-headed by reason of the multitudinous changes of the shapes about me.
Imperceptibly a mist gathered about the carven stone- work, and I only beheld it through a haze of fine golden dust, like the motes that hover in the bars of sunHght slanting through the air of a chamber. Suddenly the stone lacework of the rose windows gleamed through this vapour that had made all forms so shadowy.
Every moulding, the edges of every carving, the least detail of the sculpture was dipped in silver. The sunlight kindled fires in the stained wmdows, their rich colours sent out glowing sparks of light. 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. Sep 20, Jigar Brahmbhatt 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 Fr I am yet to discover a story that deals with artistic obsession so overtly and dramatically. The old painter Frenhofer, takes 10 years to represent air in his painting. That he is either ridiculed or is taken for a misunderstood genius however you like it is another matter.
But I was so happy to read this book because Balzac made a beautiful observation about youth and its relation to art. Something anyone who has written or painted or made some art would feel at one point, but hardly think through the way it is done here: "There is a first bloom in all human feelings, the result of a noble enthusiasm which fades till happiness is no more than a memory, glory a lie.
Among such fragile sentiments, none so resembles love as a youthful passion of a artist first suffering that delicious torture which will be his destiny of glory and of woe, a passion brimming with boldness and fear, vague hopes and inevitable frustrations. The youth who, short of cash but long on talent, fails to tremble upon first encountering a master, must always lack at least one heartstring, some sensitivity in his brushstroke, a certain poetic expressiveness.
There may be conceited boasters prematurely convinced that the future is theirs, but only fools believe them. There is no way to represent that search in a story. It can be the most consuming of fictions in theory but results in irony: how do you show a masterpiece in the making?
Because that is not consumable in execution. A painter toiling over his painting all day long, for months, years, decades, is not drama. The same is with any art. So you zoom out a little, focus on people around the artist, have them talk about the art in the making, create myths about the artist, focus on how they are ultimately affected. What stake do they have? Is it a good gamble on their part? What if they end up wasting their lives for nothing? That introduces ethical questions in the mix, a possibility of conflict.
Some drama at last! That is what Balzac relies on to structure his tales, but what he seems to be saying is akin to an observation made in "Gambara": Too much knowledge, like too much ignorance, leads to negation.source
The Unknown Masterpiece: Le Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu
Shelves: kindle , france , c19th. This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. A young artist, Nicolas Poussin, goes to visit the court painter Franz Porbus, hoping to gain entry to the home of his artistic hero. At the same time as Nicolas is outside trying to pluck the courage to knock on he door, the Maestro Frenhofer turns up, and Nicolas enters on his coat-tails, so to speak.
There follows an extraordinary critique of Porbus' painting. It's a masterpiece called Mary of Egypt which has been commissioned by Marie de Medicis but Frenhofer thinks it's no good. He says that although it obeys all the rules of painting, it lacks life. He goes into quite some considerable detail about his objections, saying that Porbus has tried to follow Hans Holbein and Titian and succeeded neither achieving the honest stiffness of the Dutch masters nor the deceptive magic of the chiaroscuro of the Italian.
Porbus is not offended but the young Poussin is, on his behalf. Frenhofer goes on to talk about his masterpiece, a painting of a nude Catherine Lescault. He's been working n it for ten years, but perfection still eludes him. Poussin goes home to try to persuade his mistress, Gillette, to sit for Frenhofer, upsetting her because she thinks he wouldn't ask her to do this if he loved her.
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In Chapter 2, Poussin and Porbus visit Frenhofer's home where he is complaining that it is Catherine's fault that some details of his picture are wrong. Porbus suggests Gillette as a model just as Poussin and Gillette arrive, still arguing about whether offering her around as a model means that Poussin doesn't love Gillette. As soon as he sees Gillette, Frenhofer is rapt and Poussin suddenly feels anxious about his mistress in Frenhofer's hands.
As Gillette and the artist go upstairs together, he threatens to use his sword if any hanky-panky takes place. When they are finally called upstairs because Frenhofer thinks his picture is now ready, they are allowed to look at it. But it's a mess. All they see are 'colors daubed one on top of the other and contained by a mass of strange lines forming a wall of paint' with a realistic lifelike foot emerging from the bottom of it.
From Balzac's description it's a work of abstract art painted in the 17th century, but to Frenhofer's chagrin remember, he's been working on this for 10 years! Poussin blurts out his dismay. Gillette, forgotten during all this drama, is weeping too. Porbus is uneasy about all this and visits again the next day but it's too late. Frenhofer has burned all his paintings and has died during the night. I'm not sure about the other two.
Oct 12, Ben rated it it was amazing Shelves: favorites. 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. 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 ju 14 October This is the first I've read of Honore de Balzac, and I was not in the least disappointed. 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. On another level, you had a story about the objectification of women in art. It is a very rich story from a literary, artistic, philosophical and sociological perspective, and a story that I will certainly read again in the near future.
I was not as thoroughly impressed with "Gambara" -- a story about musical genius, passion and misery -- but the writing is still very fine, and Balzac's command of musical knowledge and of language is still highly impressive. I am not trained to read French, but I really enjoyed Richard Howard's translation. Now I look at it again after having read about a dozen plus stories that make up his Human Comedy, and it still is one of the finer works and a testament to his role as the father of literary realism.
And at its core, we are presented with the question of what the artist must suffer for his art. One young artist sacrifices love. An older artist sacrifices sanity.
Le Chef-d'œuvre inconnu
The themes about art are similar in many ways to his short story "Sarrasine. I don't know. Only a fool would regret being had by art; or a saint. Maybe, but sometimes the stakes are very high. Is the cost of becoming a great artist always worth it in the end? Would Balzac's characters later in life regret being "had" by art? Perhaps, if they are honest with themselves. And then again, maybe not. Sep 02, Jenny Reading Envy rated it really liked it Shelves: around-the-world , read , nyrb , own , location-france.
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 This volume actually contains two stories - The Unknown Masterpiece and Gambara. I am not certain how reading Gambara would be for people who don't know music, because so much of it is written in key signatures and rhythms. Luckily I speak this language. Little thoughtful bits: The Unknown Masterpiece "It's not the mission of art to copy nature, but to express it! Remember, artists aren't mere imitators, they're poets! Oh, I'm perfectly willing to ruin myself for your sake!
If he were to penetrate the causes, music would become the greatest of all the arts. Is it not the art which penetrates the soul most deeply? We see only what painting shows us, we hear only what the poet tells us, music goes far beyond that: Does it not form your very thoughts, does it not waken torpid memories? 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. Its only 30 pages and is free. Read it for yourself and see I'm not the best judge of short stories since they're really not my thing. Read it for yourself and see what you think.
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I have some more observations but it would be spoiler ridden to voice them. Nov 20, Christine rated it liked it Shelves: literature-french , art , nyrb-book-of-month. I enjoyed the first story, but was less enamored of the second. Mar 29, Eleanor rated it really liked it Shelves: books , art , 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. Oct 30, Jenn McCollum 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 we In the "The Unfinished Masterpiece" Balzac takes up the age-old debate about where nature ends and art begins. 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 well that, while they are painting, they are neither writing nor talking," in conjunction with Foucault's theory that "either the text is ruled by the image [ But I found myself questioning this basic assumption when reading Balzac.
Budding artist Nicholas Poussin sacrifices his lover, Gillette think Galatea for the sake of art when he hands her over to genius painter Frenhofer, student of the aged Mabuse.
The unknown masterpiece = Le chef d'oeuvre inconnu : and other stories (Book, ) [ewipuconet.tk]
Mabuse and his entourage possess "the secret of giving life" to their figures, especially the female figure think Pygmalion. For these men, creating life is the same a taking it, as Frenhofer's portrait of Gillette suggests. Frenhofer's painting of Gillette is a vampiric act, as "he anticipated the triumph of the beauty of his own creation over the beauty of the living girl. Frenhofer is proud of his work and boasts its achievement: "Aha!
You are looking for a picture, and you see a woman before you. There is such depth in that canvas, the atmosphere is so true that you can not distinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is art? Art has vanished, it is invisible! It is the form of a living girl that you see before you. Have I not caught the very hues of life, the spirit of the living line that defines the figure?
Is there not the effect produced there like that which all natural objects present in the atmosphere about them, or fishes in the water? Do you see how the figure stands out against the background? Does it not seem to you that you pass your hand along the back? But then for seven years I studied and watched how the daylight blends with the objects on which it falls. And the hair, the light pours over it like a flood, does it not? Her breast—ah, see!