Le Chef-d'œuvre inconnu  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
unknown, masterpiece

Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (English "The Unknown Masterpiece") is a short story by Honoré de Balzac. At the most fundamental level, "Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu" is a reflection on art. "Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu" inspired the film la Belle Noiseuse by Jacques Rivette (1991).


Publication history

It was first published in the newspaper L'Artiste with the title "Maître Frenhofer" (English: "Master Frenhofer") in August 1831. It appeared again later in the same year under the title "Catherine Lescault, conte fantastique." It was published in Balzac's Études philosophiques in 1837 and was integrated into the La Comédie humaine in 1846.

Plot Summary

Young Nicolas Poussin, as yet unknown, visits the painter Porbus in his workshop. He is accompanied by the old master Frenhofer who comments expertly on the large tableau that Porbus has just finished. The painting is of Mary of Egypt, and while Frenhofer sings her praises, he hints that the work seems unfinished. With some slight touches of the paintbrush, Frenhofer transforms Porbus' painting such that Mary the Egyptian appears to come alive before their very eyes. Although Frenhofer has mastered his technique, he admits that he has been unable to find a suitable model for his own masterpiece, La Belle noiseuse, on which he has been working for ten years. This future masterpiece, that no one has yet seen, is to be the portrait of Catherine Lescault. Poussin offers his own lover, Gilette, as a potential model. Gilette's beauty is so great that it inspires Frenhofer to finish his project quickly. Poussin and Porbus come to admire the painting, but all they can see is part of a foot that has been lost in a swirl of colors. Their disappointment drives Frenhofer to madness, and he destroys the painting and kills himself.

Picasso and le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu

In 1921, Ambroise Vollard asked Picasso to illustrate Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu. Picasso was fascinated by the text and identified with Frenhofer so much that he moved to the rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris where Porbus' studio was supposedly located. It was in his new studio that he painted his own Masterpiece, Guernica. Picasso lived here during World War II.


"Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu" inspired the film la Belle Noiseuse by Jacques Rivette (1991).

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Le Chef-d'œuvre inconnu" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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