Either the picture portrays the core of a man or it is not a picture.
– William Carlos Williams, A Recognizable Image
In the “The UnKnown Masterpiece” (French, 1831) 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 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 […] or else the image is ruled by the text.” Gilson and Foucault stress that language and image can never peaceably coexist on the same plane of meaning. But I found myself questioning this basic assumption when reading Balzac.
This is my first time reading Balzac even though I have a bookcase full with at least four of his novels. So, I am not interested at this point in considering how “The Unfinished Masterpiece” fits into his panoply of works but rather I am invested in what the short story has to say about portraiture in literature. This is the second installment of my latest series of exploring the portrait in literature.
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. 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.”
Poussin writhes in jealousy as his coy mistress absorbs the attention of painter. Frenhofer is proud of his work and boasts its achievement:
“Aha!” he cried, “you did not expect to see such perfection! 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?… Ah! she breathed, I am sure that she breathed! Her breast—ah, see! Who would not fall on his knees before her? Her pulses throb. She will rise to her feet. Wait!”
But Poussin and his idol Probus cannot see anything on the canvas but “confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.” Then on closer,look, among “the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog” they spy one bare foot. Frenhofer goes on about his masterpiece — the shading of the figure’s bosom, the curve of her face — until he is made to realize momentarily that “there is nothing there.” But no, everyone is jealous!
The so-longed-for reproduction of Gillette’s body renders it and her actual body invisible, as she cowers in a corner where no one can see her anymore — neither lover nor painter nor stranger. Gillette is so horrified by her disappearance that she begs to die. The subject of the art has lost its meaning in the process of objectification, and this injury cannot be undone. The injury itself cannot even be seen. Franhofer has internalized Gillette — eaten her up — so thoroughly that he dies as an engorged, gluttonous man who has, through his art, stolen and consumed the meat of his work. Gillette is hen-pecked. The death of Franhofer is the achievement of art because it conquers nature.
And yet, it is Balzac’s words that outlast them all.