Who was Frenhofer?
Balzac's literary biographers scarcely mention The Unknown Masterpiece . From 1831, when it first appeared, throughout the rest of the century, there were scores of illustrations of characters in Balzac's works, but in all the voluminous archives of prints, there appears to be no embodiment of Frenhofer. For countless artists, nonetheless, Frenhofer was and remains legendary. That paradoxical word 'legendary' is suitable in the case of Frenhofer's renown among artists: it emerges only partway from its root - to read - and then flies off into its opposite. The fact is that many artists who found in themselves the image of Frenhofer were not altogether familiar with Balzac's text. Picasso, whose illustrations for The Unknown Masterpiece are celebrated, may well never have read it through; yet, as we know from his frequent references, Frenhofer excited him. Like a tenacious myth, Frenhofer gathers around his name a host of cultural meanings.
As an inspiring mythos, The Unknown Masterpiece accompanies the turbulent fortunes of modem art. The most dramatic reference remains Emile Bernard's memory of a certain night late in Cézanne's life when the old painter, already the solitary eccentric stoned by village boys, unexpectedly responded to Bernard's mention of Frenhofer:
One evening when I was speaking to him about The Unknown Masterpiece and of Frenhofer, the hero of Balzac's drama, he got up from the table, planted himself before me, and, striking his chest with his index finger, designated himself - without a word, but through this repeated gesture - as the very person in the story. He was so moved that tears filled his eyes.
Cézanne's excitedly jabbing his finger at himself, seeing himself in Frenhofer, leaves little doubt of the significance of the fable. In his turn, Cézanne has become legendary. Modem artists of great stature, such as Picasso and Matisse, revered him. What Picasso specifically admired in Cézanne was the Frenhofer in him: 'What forces our interest is Cézanne's anxiety - that's Cézanne's lesson.'
The Balzac to whom Cézanne responded so profoundly was himself endowed with boundless anxiety. Even his most persistent critics acknowledged the elemental positive force of his anxiety. Balzac spoke repeatedly, if obliquely, of his pestilential need to expend all his forces, and in several characters, most notably Louis Lambert, the great stress of ambitious anxiety results in complete breakdown. Balzac associated anxiety with the nature of
the artist. The Unknown Masterpiece represents one of Balzac's most intense efforts to analyse the condition of being an artist. Balzac's visual artist Frenhofer emerges from certain specific historical circumstances and reflects Balzac's experiences in the volatile Parisian art world; but, much more compellingly, Frenhofer is the archetypal artist for Balzac. His legend embraces the profound, recurrent questions that artists have always raised. Balzac took seriously the task of presenting Frenhofer's problems, as is apparent from the number of revisions oft he story. It was Balzac's practice, as his contemporaries repeatedly reported, to return obsessively to all his works, making countless revisions. Gautier tells us how
Balzac would again set to work, amplifying, always adding a feature, a detail, a description, an observation upon manners, a characteristic word, a phrase for effect, uniting the idea more closely with the form, always approaching nearer his interior design, choosing like a painter, the definite outline from three or four contours.
Few of Balzac's works underwent such major revisions and dilations as The Unknown Masterpiece did over a period of six years. There are two major versions, the first published in 1831 and the seemingly final version in 1837, and several in between. He apparently conceived the story sometime in 1830 or 1831, probably after having read some of the tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann that first started appearing in Mercure in 1829. In the manner of Hoffmann, Balzac called the first version of his story a 'conte fantastique', publishing it in two brief instalments: the first, subtitled 'Gillette', on 31 July, and the second, subtitled 'Catherine Lescault', on 4 August. They appeared in the journal L'Artiste , which all the young artists read.
In the first version, the tale assumes its 'fantastic' dimensions through Balzac's schematic juxtaposition of three artist types, the most broadly drawn being the mad genius Frenhofer. By the time Balzac settled on his final version, Frenhofer no longer seemed unequivocally deranged. In fact, he emerges in his discourse as a credible personage, an artist Balzac created from his own artistic experience, an artist whose attributes made him instantly identifiable to Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Rilke, deKooning and scores of others. This Frenhofer of the final version is all the more compelling since he carries the residue of the earlier, 'fantastic' version. it seemed important to Balzac to reinforce the fantastic quality by uncharacteristically distancing his tale, which takes place two centuries earlier. All the characters except Frenhofer had existed in history. Balzac could consult documents for necessary factual backgrounds, and, inveterate researcher that he was, carefully selected a few well-known facts around which his fantasy could play. Both Mabuse, who was Frenhofer's eccentric, alcoholic teacher, and François Porbus, who was born in 1570 and would have been forty-two in 1612 when the story takes place, were recorded in art history books easily enough available to Balzac. Even more accessible at the time were numerous documents about Nicolas Poussin. In 1824 Quatremère de Quincy had published a collection of Poussin's letters in which he quotes Quintilian:
Art is not different from nature, nor can it pass beyond the bounds of nature. The light of doctrine which, by a natural gift, is scattered here and there and appears in many
men at different times and places can be reunited by art; such light is never found completely or even largely in a single man.
In addition to the recent edition of Poussin's letters, Félibien's Entretiens sur les vies et sur les ouvrages de plus excellens peintres anciens et modernes had been continuously in print since 1705, and Félibien had known Poussin well. In the Félibien collection, dated 1666-68, Poussin is quoted, 'Art cannot exceed the boundaries assigned it by nature'; Balzac cited this in slightly modified form in The Unknown Masterpiece and it was the philosophic cornerstone of his tale.
If Balzac drew upon historical documents for the framework of his tale, he drew upon his own experience as an artist, and as an artist witnessing his time, for the body of his story. Although the story takes place in 1612, the correct date for Poussin's arrival in Paris, Balzac makes his interest in the parallels clear by launching immediately into a contemporary discussion of an idea very much on the minds of the artists of his own period: the question of genius. He makes young Poussin tremble on the threshold of his encounter with the veteran painter Porbus. Poussin 'felt the profound emotion which must cause the heart of every great artist to beat fast, when, in the flower of youth, he enters the presence of a man of genius or of a masterpiece'. Balzac speaks of a noble enthusiasm and remarks that 'the man who, with slender purse and genius that is budding, has not trembled with emotion upon presenting himself before a master, will always lack a chord in his heart, an indefinable touch of the brush, true feeling in his work, a certain poetry of expression'.
Balzac's reverence for genius and 'noble enthusiasm' had been nourished by his broad reading and his encounters with the young artists of the late 1820s and early 1830s. It was not, however, unqualified reverence, for The Unknown Masterpiece and several other stories about artists (writers, composers, sculptors and painters) are challenging examinations of the received idea of genius. Balzac meditated constantly on the problem of genius and was not prepared to render it simplistically. He sometimes drew upon earlier discussion, as when he posed genius in a dialectical relationship to industry (an eighteenth-century habit), showing for instance that Poussin worked hard while Frenhofer squandered his art in theory spawned by his genius. But sometimes, as in the final version, he doubts the efficacy of such equations, and introduces a host of qualifying arguments.
Balzac's concern with genius in the first version reflects his general education rather than his education in art, which, as Gautier pointed out after meeting Balzac in 1836, was incomplete. That general education included the efforts of many late eighteenth-century authors to define the notions of genius and enthusiasm. Diderot in France and Kant in Germany addressed themselves repeatedly to the problem of defining genius. Diderot regarded genius as natural aptitude, and maintained that enthusiasm was the first requirement of creation. In the mature artist, however, enthusiasm gives way to imagination, skill and discipline. Kant also regarded genius as an innate natural aptitude, but in the Critique of Judgment (1790) warned that alone, without industry and learning, genius was of little account. When
Mine de Staël brought news from Germany, her own enthusiastic version of enthusiasm stressed emotional and instinctive perceptions. In Balzac's time Mme de Staël's warning to the French that calculation and cold reason were hazards to their moral health and that enthusiasm, or 'universal harmony', was essential, was regarded seriously.
Balzac seemed to reflect Mine de Staël's views in his first important 'philosophical' story, Peau de Chagrin , in which his young hero sounds a Kantian note: 'I dilated on the subject that ideas were organic beings, complete in themselves, living in an invisible universe whence they influenced our destinies.' When he embarked on The Unknown Masterpiece , his vision of Frenhofer was well within the traditions staked out in the eighteenth century. He uses the conventional romantic idea of noble enthusiasm, calling Poussin a 'born painter', and sketches Frenhofer within the moral framework his general education had supplied. Schematically, Frenhofer had overstepped the boundaries established for genius. His hubris was too great. The governing principles designed by eighteenth-century thinkers to keep genius at work, as Kant insisted, never permitted it to forget 'mechanical' aspects in any work of art. These principles were flouted by Frenhofer, who accordingly had to suffer a tragic fate.
Even in a 'philosophic' work, Balzac was fortunately able to infuse the text with the stupendously varied experiences he had managed to pack into his creative life to date. By 1831 he had many resources for vivifying Frenhofer's myth. Although he was certainly inadequately educated in modern art when he wrote the first version, he was well acquainted with its broad bases. His ear for timely conversation registered snippets of studio gossip garnered from his friend Achille Devéria, whom he had met as early as 1825 when Devéria made a watercolour portrait of him. Through Devéria and his circle of young artists Balzac learned of various discussions in the studios and knew of the great debates over classicism and romanticism. No doubt he himself had run into the same blunt questioning that his character, Lucien de Rubempré, encounters when he comes to Paris to make his name. Lucien, arriving in the mid-1820s, is asked, 'Are you a classicist or a romantic?' When Lucien betrays ignorance of the state of affairs, his mentor exclaims: 'My dear fellow, you have arrived in the middle of a pitched battle and you must take sides immediately.'
Balzac's side, as a youth in his twenties, was obviously the romantic. He circulated among the young writers and painters who eventually congregated at the home of the slightly older Victor Hugo. Hugo's acquaintances, and his future accomplices in his grand polemic gestures, included many art students who, as Gautier remarked, were equally interested in painting and poetry. 'The young art students loved literature.' Among them were Delacroix, the Devéria brothers and young Gautier himself who at the time was a student of a conventional painter, Pioult. What these young enthusiasts were talking about when Balzac knew them included the line-versus-colour controversy; Géricault's audacity in the Raft of Medusa , which was exhibited in 1819; Delacroix's growing disdain for academic restraints; German romantic theories as purveyed by Mme de Staël; the lessons of Goethe's Werther and
his Faust , newly translated by the young Gérard de Nerval. Many of these preoccupations are reflected in Balzac's first version of The Unknown Masterpiece .
Lake the young artists, Balzac was much attracted to Victor Hugo, who, in the late 1820s, had managed to awe the art students. The youngest of them, the 'rapins', stood at their easels fervently discussing the issues he raised. The climax of these excited explorations of new ideas was finally Hugo's riotous opening night known as the Battle of Hernani , but it seems likely that it was his earlier reading of the preface to Cromwell to his young acolytes, including Gérard de Nerval, that shaped the character of their romanticism. Gautier tells us of the art students' response to the reading: 'Though not yet affiliated to the Romantic troop, we had already been won over in our hearts. The preface to Cromwell was as radiant in our eyes as the Tables of the Law on Mount Sinai, and its arguments seemed to us beyond contradiction.'
It is not hard to imagine the unruly 'rapins' revelling in the daring phrases punctuating Hugo's powerful manifesto. 'It's time to say loudly that everything that is in nature is in art.' The modern muses, he said, would see things at a glance as higher and grander, and poetry would begin to work as does nature, mixing in her creations light and shadow, the grotesque and the sublime. He attacked 'pedants' and their 'scholastic labyrinths', urging his listeners to bypass their rules. Art, he declared, leafs rapidly through the centuries, through nature; it interrogates chronicles and restores what annalists have truncated, divining their omissions. The modern poet, he told them, must even include the vulgar and trivial, for nothing must be abandoned. 'Lake God, the true poet is present everywhere at once in his work.'
Such was the news in the studios of 1827. Balzac, who was frantically trying to shore up his failing printing business, had little time to frequent studios and cafés, but he always knew how to keep in touch with the slightest alterations in ambiance. He was naturally on hand for the inspiring chaos of the opening of Hernani on 25 February 1830, and did not fail to notice the extraordinary array of rebellious bohemian youths with their outlandish costumes, pugnacious attitudes, and exaggerated enthusiasm. In April he published an article about Hernani and Hugo, saying: 'his name is a banner; his work the expression of a doctrine, and he himself a sovereign.'
Many of the youths who had fought the symbolic battle of Hernani were on the real barricades six months later during the so-called glorious days - the three days of fighting that preceded the flight of Charles X and the installation of Louis-Philippe as 'King of the French'. Balzac was far from Paris that summer, but when he returned in September the July Monarchy was in full spate and the hopeful young had already bitterly recognized their error. Within a matter of weeks the quicker intelligences among the artists had understood that Louis-Philippe, for all his previous liberalism, was, as the caricaturists quickly declared, a philistine king. He was the accomplice of the worst bourgeois exploiters, those whom the angry caricaturists pictured comfortably ensconced in their drawing rooms congratulating themselves that the poor and the young were fighting their battles for them on the
barricades. Balzac's reaction to Louis-Philippe's treachery was couched in the language of deepest sarcasm. His printed words paralleled the fury of his friend Philippon whose caricature of Louis-Philippe as a pear brought upon his weekly, La Caricature , the police raiders. Balzac wrote several editorials for Caricature under a pseudonym. His opinion of the new regime was consonant with that of Karl Marx who later wrote that Louis-Philippe and his ministers formed a stock company, of which he was the director, for the exploitation of France's wealth. The crude grocers and ambitious pharmacists who peopled Balzac's human comedy were stockholders, forming the caste of nouveaux-riches that so enraged the Republican veterans of the barricades.
In the course of establishing his policy, broadly based on the slogan 'enrichissez-vous', Louis-Philippe had announced: 'As regards domestic policy, we will endeavour to maintain a juste milieu .' That fateful phrase was to become a characteristic epithet in the art world which, as Albert Boime has pointed out, was deeply affected by Louis-Philippe's politics. At first, Louis-Philippe's ministrations to art seemed to offer long-awaited liberalization. One of the first moves of the new regime was to placate the independent artists who chafed under the rules of the Academy. The annual Salon was opened to artists of both the romantic and classic positions, and the new landscape painters were admitted to public scrutiny. Louis-Philippe led the bourgeoisie in his initial months in office by stepping up the government's official interest in artists with commissions, and by calling attention to the positive good of keeping artists on the public payroll. The new patronage of the bourgeoisie affected artists directly and, in many cases, adversely. The public, longing to be 'modem', but finding Delacroix-influenced painters too modern, was only too happy to follow the bourgeois king in his taste for the juste milieu . A reviewer of the Spring Salon of 1831, writing in L'Artiste , saw a school of 'transition' forming, its characteristics being 'conscientious drawing, but not of the jansenistic kind practised by Ingres; the effect, but without everything having been sacrificed in its behalf; colour, but which will approximate as closely as possible the tones of nature, and not result from bizarre tones veiling the real with the fantastic . . .' In short, the juste milieu .
Balzac followed the arguments in L'Artiste and other journals. He recognized instinctively, and early in Louis-Philippe's reign, that the opportunistic propensities of the juste-milieu philosophy boded ill for art. He had had almost a year to absorb the new ambiance when he started The Unknown Masterpiece , and by that time the government had moved decisively to neutralize the extremes in the visual arts. The strategy was to harness the energies of the restive painters by putting them to work in the interest of the state. It was an effective policy. Even Delacroix was eager to win a commission, and others in the romantic circle did not hesitate to alter, just a little, their habitual styles in the hope of sharing in the promised prosperity and state honours. Balzac noticed all this with profound distaste. When the middle-of-the-road bourgeois began really to matter, in matters of taste, something was amiss. He sensed, as he demonstrated in many of his stories, the beginning of the fateful breach between bourgeois and modern artist, and located it in those first months of the July Monarchy.
Of the three artists Balzac selected for characterization in The Unknown Masterpiece , two were outcasts and one potentially an outcast. Porbus, as Balzac states in the opening lines, had been 'abandoned' in favour of Rubens by Marie de Médicis after Henry IV's assassination in 1610. His masterpiece was to be seen only 'by those self-willed individuals to whom we owe the preservation of the sacred fire in evil days'. Frenhofer, by his own eccentric choice and innate genius, is also far beyond the range of the ordinary juste-milieu citizen. The young Poussin is destined by his very sensitivity to a similar role. He is one of those 'self-willed' independent geniuses who finds his way to the master Porbus although the world has turned its back on its former favourite. Not one of Balzac's trio could possibly accommodate the brightly lit world of the juste milieu . Balzac stresses the solitary, introspective character of his artists by setting them in the chiaroscuro atmosphere of their northern contemporary - another distinctly isolated genius - Rembrandt. The studio Poussin enters is illuminated dimly by a very high skylight, leaving corners in blackness. A few stray gleams light up a cuirass hanging on the wall and an old-fashioned dresser laden with curious vessels studded with bright specks. There are heavy draperies and numerous bottles. In the dim light Balzac depicts Frenhofer, styled after Rembrandt. The first 'conte fantastique' models him as a Hoffmannesque magician: a painted Kreisler, mysterious and indefinably superhuman. There was a diabolical cast to his face, Balzac writes, and his eyes, though dim with age, were capable of 'magnetic flashes'. Frenhofer's face was 'strangely seamed, too, by the exhaustion of old age, and even more, by the thoughts that undermine body and mind alike'. The Frenhofer of the first version bears the stigma of Promethean ambitions. He is Balzac's personification of the agonies of creative life and its profound abysses, whereas in the final version he is something more than a Hugoesque fusion of the grotesque and the sublime.
When Balzac published the final version of The Unknown Masterpiece in 1837 he no longer called it a 'conte fantastique' but included it among his 'philosophic' works. If Frenhofer casts a shadow over modem thought, it is because Balzac brought to this final version enough convincing detail to make his character not simply an exemplar of the creative principle gone mad, but a plausible painter. Balzac himself offers the reason why we can still read this story with a sense of recognition: 'It is the property of a good fable that the author himself does not know all the riches it contains.'
Balzac could not foresee with what astonishment the twentieth-century reader finds a description of an abstract painting deftly rendered, nor could he have known that the issues he covered in the conversations among the three seventeenth-century painters could be cast in a modem light and offer convincing parallels. What he did know was that in revising his story he brought it into the modem world of nineteenth-century France and deliberately reflected its artistic turmoil.
Two important encounters enriched Balzac's fund of detail. By the
mid-1830s he was famous, much in demand, and frequently caricatured in the press. It was necessary, he wrote to Mine Hanska on 8 March 1836, to leave behind Ns habits of modesty and to have himself painted by a good artist. He surveyed the scene with some thoroughness and settled on a painter he had probably met the year before, Louis Boulanger. As a student, Boulanger had shared a studio with Eugène Devéria, whose brother Achille had made one of the earliest portraits of Balzac. Boulanger had been a twenty-four-year-old rebel from the classic tradition of David when he met both Delacroix and Hugo. Like Delacroix, he admired Titian, Veronese and Rubens, and he was eager to enter the ranks of romantic rebels led by Hugo. His great fondness for romantic literature endeared him to the writers. Hugo addressed him in a letter of 1830 as 'Ami, mes deux amis, mon peintre, mon poète'; Gautier wrote tercets on his work, and Sainte-Beuve regarded him as the best of travelling companions. (Years later, Baudelaire was to say that Hugo ruined Boulanger as a painter.) At the time Balzac encountered Boulanger, he was acknowledged as an intelligent, skilful and well-endowed romantic painter whose portraits, in particular, were excellent. The fact that, as Gautier wrote, his work was full of reminiscences of Giorgione, Titian, Guido, Ribera, Raphael, Bonnington and Lawrence did not detract from his stature.
Balzac was well pleased with his choice. Two weeks after the first mention of the portrait to Mine Hanska, he wrote to say that Boulanger had just left with the intention of making of the portrait a 'grande oeuvre'. During the next nine months Balzac continued to mention his sittings with Boulanger and on 1 December he wrote: 'there is a bit of Titian and a bit of Rubens mixed . . . You will have a work in which Boulanger has put all his forces, and for which I posed thirty days.' During the many sittings Balzac had ample time to note the techniques of an accomplished painter. He watched how Boulanger mixed his paints, how he altered the portrait from sitting to sitting, and how he built up the beautiful surfaces to impasto depths. His well-trained ear attended the language of his portrayer. Perhaps he remembered Félibien's boast of his access to Poussin: 'He made me see as he worked, by visible demonstration, the truth of the things he taught me in his conversation.' During all those months of sittings Balzac questioned Boulanger about the lively disputes in the art world. Undoubtedly he pumped Boulanger, who saw Delacroix frequently, for news of the great painter and his current opinions.
In both versions Balzac has Frenhofer take up a brush. But in 1837 he takes it up with real paint on it. The odour of turpentine pervades the final version. If Balzac's education in the technical aspects of modem painting took place in Boulanger's studio, his education in theory was enriched through his close association with one of the most important young art critics of the day, Théophile Gautier. The former art student was still closely allied to the world of modern painters though he had already made his literary sensation with the romantic novel Mademoiselle de Maupin , published in 1835. Balzac read it immediately and was so deeply impressed that he sent Jules Sandeau, who was his assistant for a few months in 1835-36, to inquire if Gautier would collaborate with him on his new venture, La Chronique de Paris .
Gautier was only twenty-four at the time, and eager to meet Balzac. He still spent his time with the young circle of poets and painters who had fought the battle of Hernani and was, like them, in full reaction against the stagnation, after so much promise, of the juste milieu .
Gautier and the other members of Hugo's band had managed to stay together for several years after the heroic evening at the theatre. Towards the end of 1831 they formed a version of Hugo's 'cénacle' and called it 'le petit cénacle'. The group was high-spirited, much given to scandalizing the bourgeoisie through their extravagant modes of dress and behaviour. In the fall of 1834, Gautier, Nerval and several others settled in the Doyenne, an old, slumlike section of Paris behind the Louvre, where they led a life Gautier later described as 'wild and truculent'. Their hair flowed over their shoulders, he wrote, like the manes of lions, and they looked 'more than Merovingian'. He looked back affectionately to this 'gypsy encampment' where he, Nerval, Arsène Houssaye and assorted others lived what he called the life of Robinson Crusoe, and where they held spectacular parties. For one of these grand affairs the rooms were painted with decorations by Corot, Nanteuil and Chassériau, among others. Gautier's allusion to the life of Robinson Crusoe was not playful. He and his friends saw themselves shipwrecked in a monstrously commercial society. The world that appeared so suddenly, and so brazenly, with the advent of Louis-Philippe deeply shocked them. Their complex attitudes, which in histories of the period are too neatly sealed off in the phrase 'l'art pour l'art', were consonant in many details with the attitude of the slightly older novelist, Balzac.
From his early youth Gautier had demonstrated a generous nature, capable of friendship and exceedingly tolerant of others who, like himself, had devoted themselves passionately to the arts. This led him to soften his judgments, and he was criticized frequently for his over-generous comments and his eclecticism. But even so acerbic a critic as Sainte-Beuve, who was certainly not notable for his generosity to fellow writers, wrote admiringly of Gautier's tact as a critic in his Nouveaux Lundis , and called attention to Gautier's most important basic attitudes. Sainte-Beuve cites a passage from an article Gautier had written on Casimir Delavigne, to prove Gautier's acuity as a critic despite the ostensible mildness of his writings. Gautier had written: 'In the world of art there stands always, below each genius, a man of talent, preferred to him. Genius is uncultivated, violent, tempestuous; it seeks only to satisfy itself, and cares more for the future than the present.' The man who could write this was well equipped to understand Balzac; in fact Gautier understood Balzac better than any of his contemporaries. The memoir he wrote of him in 1858 is still the most vivid account.
The memoir begins in 1835 - perhaps making an unconscious reference to The Unknown Masterpiece - with the young Gautier arriving with a couple of friends for breakfast. 'My heart beat violently, for never have I approached without trembling a master of thought . . .' Balzac quickly put his young friends at ease. From that day a close friendship developed between the novelist and the young painter-poet-novelist who would, eventually, call Balzac a 'seer'. Gautier was quick to recognize in Balzac what few others at
the time would grant: the tempestuous genius that seeks only to satisfy itself and cares more for the future than the present.
Given the close association formed by these two writers, and Balzac's respect for his young colleague, it seems certain that Balzac, who was thinking about the revision of The Unknown Masterpiece , called upon Gautier's knowledge as an erstwhile painter and art critic. Balzac now had a chance to study not just the painters' manuals and academic textbooks that were widely consulted in nineteenth-century France, but the minds and mores of living artists. Gautier suggests that he and his friends, who were at that time mostly painters and poets, educated Balzac. Their task was not difficult. Balzac had already shown a certain aptitude in his enthusiasm for their hero Delacroix. When Delacroix showed his Femmes d'Alger in the Salon of 1834, Balzac had longed to purchase it. Since Gautier prided himself on having written as early as 1832 of Delacroix's genius, he and Balzac got off to a good start. Fortunately for Balzac's education, Gautier was not only a discriminating art critic, but a broad-minded one. He had been sensitive enough to praise, in his Salon of 1833, not only Delacroix, but also his chief rival, Ingres. His great enthusiasms during his term as an art student had been Raphael, Teniers, Tiepolo, Michelangelo and Rembrandt (who remained a major interest). Later, as a young art critic he had been one of the first writers to recognize the deeper significance of Spanish painting - he had mentioned Goya's Caprichos as early as 1832 and was largely credited with impressing the public with the importance of both Goya and El Greco.
Balzac had met many painters in passing, including the King's favourite juste-milieu painter, Ary Scheffer, whom, as he told Mme Hanska, he had definitely resisted. But he had never had the kind of searching discussions characteristic of Gautier's circle. Until he became intimate with Gautier his general ideal in art was mystical and literary. Gautier's modifications of that mysticism were not based so much on principle, since he himself was much given to mystical formulations, as on practical considerations. He taught Balzac to look closely at works of art, and he impressed on Balzac his fundamental belief that the making of art excluded mere imitation. Long before Baudelaire, Gautier had said that nature was a dictionary, and that copying nature was 'only stenography'.
By the time he breakfasted with Balzac, Gautier's view was already well-formulated, despite his youth. He already believed, as he put it years later, that 'the painter carries his painting within himself, and between nature and him the canvas serves as intermediary'. He thought that when a painter wanted to make a landscape, it was not the desire to copy this tree or that rock or horizon that impelled him, but a certain dream of agreeable freshness, country repose, amorous melancholy: in short, an ideal beauty that he sought to translate into the language proper to him. He chided the artist who 'closed his microcosm and painted from the exterior model', and he repeatedly stressed the 'interior model'. Above all, he brought into relief the crucial role of intuition. Balzac made Frenhofer reflect this aesthetic in his obsessive adventuring into his interior vision. But, as Balzac underscored in the final version, Frenhofer lost the game when he no longer allowed the free play of
his intuition. Much of Gautier's argument can be found in the dialogue of this version. Like most romantic art students, Gautier had learned to cherish the first impulse and to trust its faithfulness to the interior vision. Since the late eighteenth century arguments for the unfinished qualities of the sketch as opposed to the excessive finish of the academically refined painting had been promulgated. By the 1830s the view had won wide acceptance. Delacroix's well-known letter on government competitions summed up the general attitude:
The artist, closeted in his studio, at first inspired by his work and buoyed by that supreme confidence which alone produces masterpieces, arrives by chance to cast his glance outward on the stage where it will be judged. He modifies it, he spoils it, he overworks it, all this civilizing and polishing in order not to displease.
More than once in his portraits of artists Balzac expressed his contempt for the painter who gives way to the crowd. In Les Illusions Perdus the painter Joseph Bridau reflects Delacroix. 'His friends have known him to destroy a picture because he thought it looked too highly finished. "It is too laboured," he will say, "art-school work."' The sketch, Balzac had learned in Gautier's circle, was the germ, and a certain quality of roughness even in more ambitious works left room for the imagination. The nuance and abstraction available in the intuitive touch were highly valued. These views and their counter-arguments find ample expression in the final version of The Unknown Masterpiece , where the painters argue from several points of view.
The infusions of art talk enhancing the final version begin when Balzac shows the middle-aged master Porbus deferring to the impassioned criticisms of the old master Frenhofer. Frenhofer criticizes Porbus's figure of a female saint in terms that are surprisingly familiar even to painters today. She is glued to the canvas, he says, you cannot walk around her. She is a silhouette with a single face, a cut-out figure. 'I feel no air blowing between that arm and the background', he tells Porbus, sparing him little in his copious comments. He comes to the essential point - the point on which young painters of Balzac's acquaintance were quite insistent - when he characterizes the snare of the juste milieu : 'You have wavered uncertainly between two systems, between drawing and colouring, between the painstaking phlegm, the stiff precision, of the old German masters and that dazzling ardour, the happy fertility of the Italian painters.'
It is this 'unfortunate indecision' that hinders Porbus, Frenhofer states. The younger master attempts to defend himself, saying there are effects in nature that seem improbable on canvas, to which Frenhofer replies (in the voice of Gautier?), 'The mission of art is not to copy nature but to give expression to it.' This is one of Frenhofer's most uncompromising positions. Although in the range of his discourse Frenhofer encompasses the arguments of both the romantics and the classicists, he holds to a few principles that, given his age, distance him from the two younger painters. Perhaps because Gautier admired both Ingres and Delacroix, Balzac can have Frenhofer reflect the partisans of Ingres with their idealism when he scoffs at Porbus's mention of the 'effects' in nature. 'We have to grasp the spirit, the soul, in the features of
things and beings. Effects! Effects! why, they are the accidents of life, and not life itself.' He goes on to extol Raphael for his instinctive sense,
which in ham 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 inexhaustible 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.
Since the basic goal of independent artists in Balzac's day was the simplification of masses in favour of the effect, Balzac has Frenhofer run counter to the romantic position. The academics stressed the graded gamut of values - the half-tones - while the rebels from the academy tended to eliminate unwanted details in favour of a broad, general effect of chiaroscuro. Despite his own warm appreciation of Delacroix, Balzac apparently could not shake his earliest conviction that Raphael was the 'king of the painters' and that he was the king because he knew nothing of the rough naturalism of the romantics and only sought the ideal. Frenhofer scolds Porbus for stopping short before appearances; he doesn't 'go far enough into the intimate knowledge of form'. Unvanquished painters, he says, 'persevere until nature is driven to show itself to them all naked and in its true guise'.
To prove his point that what the painting lacks is a mere nothing, 'but that nothing is everything', Frenhofer turns up his sleeves and calls for a palette and brushes. In a scene that benefited from Balzac's thirty sittings to Boulanger, Frenhofer sets to work, muttering darkly about the poor quality of the colours. Once again Balzac conjures the old vision of Rembrandt, artfully describing the behaviour of the old painter who, 'with feverish animation', dipped the end of the brush in the different mounds of colour, sometimes 'running over the whole assortment more rapidly than a cathedral organist'. Holding forth in a running commentary, the old artist 'touched all the different parts of the picture: here two strokes of the brush, there a single one, but always so aptly that the result was almost a new painting, but a painting dipped in light'. As Balzac continues this intimate description of the old master at work his pen quickens and the Hoffmann 'fantastique' appears in the description of Frenhofer who 'worked with such passionate ardour that the perspiration stood on his bald head; all his motions were so impatient and abrupt, that it seemed to young Poussin that there must be a devil in his body, acting through his hands and forcing them to perform all sorts of fantastic antics against the man's will'. Nearing the end of his feverish performance, Frenhofer tells young Poussin, 'You see, my boy, it is only the last stroke of the brush that counts.'
Although Balzac sees something diabolic in Frenhofer's ardour, he knows artists - that is, himself - well enough to add a sequence of gradual deflation; that kind of slow drift towards depression that artists so often feel after having worked at a high pitch. Doubt, the artist's enemy, enters. This side of Frenhofer's psychic life is revealed when the two younger artists accompany him to his own studio. There Porbus tries, as he has often tried before, to get Frenhofer to show him his fabled portrait of the courtesan Catherine Lescault,
known as La Belle Noiseuse. The old man excitedly resists. He still has a few last touches, he says. The night before, he had thought he was finished, but in the morning he realized his error. With visible perturbation Frenhofer launches into a desperate peroration explaining that he has studied, analysed, dissected, layer by layer, paintings by Titian, the king of light; that he has studied shadows to the point that the shadow of flesh was not like that of other painters - wood or brass - but pure light; and in one of the most significant passages in the story, he discusses the nature of drawing:
I have not, like a multitude of ignorant fools who imagine that they draw correctly because they make a sharp, smooth stroke, marked the outlines of my figure with absolute exactness, and brought out in relief every trifling anatomical detail, for the human body is not bounded by lines. In that respect, sculptors can approach reality more nearly than we painters. Nature provides a succession of rounded outlines which run into one another. Strictly speaking, drawing does not exist ! - Do not laugh, young man! Strange as that statement may appear, you will some day realize its truth. The line is the method by which man expresses the effect of light upon objects; but there are no lines in nature, where everything is rounded; it is in modelling that one draws, that is to say, one takes things away from their surroundings . . .
After continuing with a detailed description of his method, Frenhofer abruptly reminds himself of his anxiety:
But I am not content as yet, I have my doubts. It may be we ought not to draw a single line, perhaps it would be better to attack a figure in the middle, giving one's attention first to the parts that stand out most prominently in the light and to pass thence to the darker portions . . . O Nature, Nature! who has ever followed thee in thy flight? Observe that too much knowledge, like ignorance, leads to a negation. I doubt my own work!
So saying, the old man falls into a profound reverie, playing mechanically with iris knife. The implications of this key speech range far. Balzac faithfully reflects the preoccupations of his widened circle of artistic acquaintances, as well as his own thoughts as an artist. The younger acolytes of Delacroix were familiar with his thoughts and knew he maintained that there are no lines in nature. Other artists of the period had also made similar observations. Goya asked, 'Where do they find lines in nature? As for me, I can distinguish only luminous and dark bodies'; to which Ingres responded, 'Where do you see touch in nature?' The challenge in the two positions lay in wait for every young painter. Balzac, however, carries the argument to its ingenious extreme when he concludes that, strictly speaking, drawing itself does not exist.
Balzac also reflects the ruminations of his friend Gautier in the suggestion that sculptors can approach reality more nearly than painters. But here Balzac was prescient, for it was not until the late 1840s that Delacroix himself could state clearly his view of the sculptor as he relates to the painter, who 'does not begin his work with a contour; with his materials, he builds up an appearance of an object which, rough at first, immediately presents the principal condition of sculpture: actual relief and solidity. The colourists, those who unite all the aspects of painting, must establish from the outset everything that is proper and essential to their art. They have to mass in with colour exactly as the sculptor does with clay, marble or stone; their sketch, like that of the
sculptor, must also render proportion, perspective, effect and colour.' In later years Gautier firmly maintained that 'la plastique est l'art supérieure'. Possibly inspired by Gautier, the important observation expressed by Frenhofer, that nature provides a succession of rounded outlines which run into each other, was to have serious consequences for Cézanne and the future of both modem painting and sculpture.
When Frenhofer, exhausted by his passion, falls into a profound reverie, Porbus tells young Poussin: 'He is conversing with his spirit .' At that word, Balzac tells us, Poussin is conscious of the pressure of an inexplicable artist's curiosity. The old painter assumes 'the proportions of a supernatural genius, living in an unknown sphere'. The spiritual argument of the fable begins here. Throughout the two parts, Balzac has woven the subtheme of love, slightly emphasizing the sensuous, earthly aspects of passion. In the first part Gillette, Poussin's submissive young mistress, is offered by Poussin as a model to Frenhofer in the hope that, through her sacrifice, he will learn the secrets of the old artist. In the second part, Gillette's unearthly counterpart, Catherine Lescault, overshadows the young, living model. This creation of the supernatural old painter is ideal, as Frenhofer sardonically points out when Gillette is first offered to him. How can a living, youthful being compare with his creation? Sooner or later, he says, Gillette will betray Poussin, while La Belie Noiseuse . . . Never ! In the first version, this theme of passion assumes at least as much importance as the theme of the nature of art. In the final version, the story of the sacrifice of Gillette serves only to bring into relief Balzac's preoccupation with the spiritual. When Poussin senses that he is in the presence of someone living in an unknown sphere, we are introduced to one of Balzac's most persistent motifs: the assertion of the ascendancy of the spiritual element in true works of art.
The pronounced materialism of the July Revolution emphasized the need for such assertions. Never had French society so blatantly declared its materialistic bias, and never had artists felt the loss of the spiritual so keenly. Painters, poets, and novelists deplored the degrading conditions under which they worked. The juste milieu was visibly mediocre and the grand themes debased. Increasingly the most independent spirits in the nineteenth century turned their thoughts to matters of the spirit. From the 1830s on, throughout the century, there were resurgences of interest in the spiritual on the part of writers, sometimes manifested in the practice of allegory, as in the case of Flaubert, or in the actual study of mysticism, as in the case of Baudelaire and, later, Rimbaud. While Balzac and his successors cast side glances at science, and attempted to coordinate vanguard scientific thought with strands of creative mysticism, their repeated statements of anxiety centred largely on the loss of dignity of the arts through the loss of the spiritual base. The most inconsolable were the adherents of the principle of art pour l'art . From the beginning of the 1830s the little magazines and newspapers were filled with anxious observations that the age of individualism had robbed art of its
grandeur. The renewed vigour of the Saint-Simonians, whose mysticism did not apply to the arts (which they insisted must be 'useful'), disturbed observers in the press, and impelled them to call, as did Gustave Planche in 1835, for 'a spiritualist reaction in art'. Others, such as Heinrich Heine, avoided the embarrassing word 'spiritual', but took care constantly to remind their readers of the dangers of 'useful' art. 'You know', Heine wrote to a friend in 1837, 'that I stand for the autonomy of art which must not be the valet of either religion or politics, but on the contrary its own end, like the world itself.'
The impression of Frenhofer as registered by the young Poussin is an archetypal portrait of the spiritual artist. Poussin longs to penetrate the unknown sphere. His encounter with Frenhofer 'aroused a thousand confused ideas in his mind'. The one point that was clearly perceptible to Poussin was - and this is Balzac's most constant perception of artists - a 'complete image of the artist's nature, of the erratic nature to which so many powers are entrusted, and which too often misuses them, leading sober reason, and bourgeois intellects, and even some connoisseurs into a stony wilderness where they see nothing; whereas the winged maiden, in her sportive fantasy, discovers epics there, and castles, and works of art . . .' Thus to the enthusiastic Poussin 'the old man had become, by a sudden transformation, the personification of art, art with its secrets, its impulses, its reveries'.
In this secret world hedged by reverie, Balzac forages for meaning. From his earliest works he had pondered the nature of the creative principle, and tested it against the most varied approaches. He had scoured scientific treatises of such nineteenth-century figures as Cuvier and Lavater for an explanation of his own experience as an artist. And, just as assiduously, he had searched the horizons of the imaginative philosophers and theologians. There is hardly a work by Balzac, no matter how specifically committed to the faithful reflection of the human comedy, no matter how boldly and objectively reported, that does not have some touch, some fragment, of speculation about the deepest mystery he knew: the mystery of the created work. The secrets, impulses and reveries of art were Balzac's most insistent challenge. His search for their origins led him to consider the most extravagant explanations and to reach the very edge of a psychological abyss. 'Abyssus abyssum ,' Louis Lambert exclaims. 'Our minds are abysses which delight in abysses. Children, men, old men, are always greedy for mysteries under whatever form they present themselves.'
There are repeated allusions to the nature of the abyss in Balzac's work. He was among the first to see in its depths the positive value of what later generations were to celebrate as the 'void' or 'nothingness'. The narrator in Louis Lambert , who was closely modelled on Balzac himself, tells us:
I loved to plunge into that mysterious world, invisible to the senses, wherein everyone takes pleasure in living, whether he pictures it to himself under the indefinite form of the future or clothes it with the potent forms of the fable. These violent reactions of the mind upon itself taught me unwittingly to realize its power and accustomed me to the labours of thought.
Balzac, who had trained himself so carefully as an observer, made it a habit
to observe 'these violent reactions of the mind upon itself', and in his intensity prefigured the ultimate exercise undertaken by Paul Valéry in Monsieur Teste .
Balzac shared his attraction to the abyss with several of his more sensitive contemporaries. They all went to the same sources. The tenets of Swedenborg, for instance, were repeatedly examined by artists and writers throughout the nineteenth century, each generation finding solace or matter for extrapolation, from Balzac to Poe to Baudelaire and into the twentieth century to Kandinsky and Mondrian. But Balzac's interest in mysticism and angelism, tempered by his natural scepticism, offers a curious blend of objective notation and enthusiastic rhapsodizing. Like E. T. A. Hoffmann, whom he admired, Balzac was interested in psychological details that could illuminate the old argument over the dichotomy of spirit and matter. Both writers explored gestures, human tics, and the events occurring in sleep or half-sleep for keys to artistic behaviour. Both saw the artist as the most sensitive barometer of emotional climate, and as a fragile being always in danger from the assaults of the philistines.
In many works Balzac set himself the task of describing as precisely as possible how an artist felt and what impelled him during the crucial moments of creation. His belief in the furor was founded in his own experience when his imagination vaulted into the 'spaces of thought'. He checked against the experiences of close friends such as Gautier. The principal inquiry in what Balzac calls his 'philosophical' works is into the functioning of his own imagination, which he describes through various characters. Louis Lambert, destined to become insane, is overendowed with what Balzac thought of as the creative principle - as is Frenhofer. The necessary ability to observe the violent reactions of the mind upon itself is, in them, too highly developed. Before his breakdown, Lambert's capacity to imagine is clearly a reflection of Balzac's own process, always directed towards 'the spaces of thought'. There are many passages in Louis Lambert in which Balzac attempts to characterize the psychological experience; for example:
'When I choose,' he said in his peculiar language . . . 'I draw a veil over my eyes. I suddenly enter within myself and find there a dark chamber where the accidents of nature are reproduced in a purer form than that under which they first appeared to my external senses.
Balzac explains that Louis Lambert's imagination was already highly developed at the age of twelve, 'either because he proceeded by analogy or because he was endowed with a species of second sight by virtue of which he embraced all nature.' The 'second sight' theory is fundamental to Balzac's aesthetic convictions. In another passage in Louis Lambert he elaborates:
When he thus put forth all his powers in reading he lost, in a certain sense, the consciousness of his physical life, and no longer existed save through the all-powerful working of his interior organs, whose scope of action was immeasurably extended; as he himself expressed it, he left space behind him .
Gautier, who wrote in his memoir on Balzac that, 'although it may be singular to say it in the full light of this nineteenth century, Balzac was a seer !',
stressed the importance of second sight (a concept a shade more complex than that of intuition). He cites the story Facino Cane , published in March 1836, in which Balzac describes his following working people in the streets and listening to their talk of the price of potatoes and the rising cost of coal:
I felt their rags upon my back, I walked in their dilapidated shoes; their desires, their needs all passed into my soul and my soul passed into theirs; it was the dream of an awakened man. To abandon my own habits, to become another than myself through this transport of the moral faculties, to play this game at will, such was my recreation. To what do I owe this gift? To a second sight? It is one of those faculties whose abuse would lead to madness: I have never sought the sources of this power; I possess it, and I avail myself of it, that is all.
In the preface to Peau de Chagrin he tells us that this faculty is a moral phenomenon that science finds difficult to account for. It is a power which transports poets and artists to where they must or wish to be, and which will perhaps permit them to abolish the laws of time and space.
Balzac speaks of the 'dream of an awakened man' - in short, of reverie - from his own experience. His one specifically Swedenborgian story, Séraphita , goes to the limit of the mystical aspect of the question, but there are other stories in which Balzac's insights are offered in less arcane terms. His Swedenborg adventure was an exercise in mysticism, an approach to the observation of the violence of the mind upon itself. Gautier claims that Balzac's phenomenal reading capacity allowed him to absorb his mother's entire set of the voluminous works of Swedenborg in a few days. André Maurois, on the contrary, says Balzac knew Swedenborg only through a French outline of his writings. It is also possible that Balzac came to Swedenborg through the writings of Charles Fourier, which in the late 1820s and early 1830s were becoming well known. First in 1803 and more definitely in 1808, Fourier had already put forward his doctrine of universal analogy, in which he likened the laws of the animal kingdom to the laws of the cosmos. Fourier's belief that he could scientifically analyse the movements of the spiritual and material worlds, and that 'human passions are animated mathematics', is reflected in numerous passages in Louis Lambert . Whatever Balzac's sources, in S éraphita he was chiefly using Swedenborg as an exemplar of the mystical principle, just as he used Frenhofer as the exemplar of the creative principle. Balzac himself said of Swedenborg, 'In reading him one must either lose one's mind or become a seer.'
In Séraphita , Balzac paraphrases Swedenborg so deftly that Baudelaire could lean more on Balzac than the original source for his own adventure in Swedenborgism. Balzac's paramount interest in Séraphita is the question of angelism. He speaks of 'the correspondences that exist between the visible and tangible things of the earthly world', and he describes angelism: 'With men, the natural passed into the spiritual, they viewed the world in its visible form and in an atmosphere of reality adapted to their senses. But with the angelic spirit, the spiritual passes into the natural, it views the world in its inward spirit and not in its form.' The correspondences that Baudelaire made so memorable were enunciated by Balzac in 1834: 'Speech is the gift of all
mankind. Woe to him who should remain silent in the midst of the desert thinking that no one could hear him; everything speaks and everything listens here below. Speech moves worlds.'
While Balzac was working on Séraphita he may have been thinking again of his revision of The Unknown Masterpiece , for in that story we find the phrase: 'like the painter who wants to put life itself on the canvas and is dashed to pieces even with all the resources of art in this vain attempt.' The old Pygmalion myth is revived and Frenhofer's two colleagues are well aware of its moral. Balzac's shift to the mythological voice is heralded by Frenhofer himself when he exclaims: 'To the abode of the departed I would go to seek thee, O celestial beauty ! Like Orpheus, I would go down into the hell of art, to bring back life from there.'
With great understanding Porbus explains to the younger artist that Frenhofer is a man passionately devoted to art, 'who looks higher and further than other painters'. Yet, for all his understanding, Porbus feels obliged to give a practical critique of the older man's theory. Its chief flaw lies in the consequence: 'He has meditated deeply on colour, on the absolute accuracy of line, but he has investigated so much that he has at last reached the point of doubting the very object of his investigations.' To spare the young artist the moments of despair that led Frenhofer to insist that there is no such thing as drawing, and that only geometrical figures can be made with lines, Porbus tells him that art is, like nature, composed of an infinitude of elements, all of which can be used. However,
There is something truer than all of this; namely that practice and observation are everything to a painter, and that, if rhetoric and poetry quarrel with the brush, we reach the doubting stage like this good man who is as much a madman as a painter.
He urges Poussin to work, for 'painters ought to meditate only with a brush in hand'.
Balzac's conviction that work and works are everything is not entirely triumphant in this story. He himself never ceased to struggle with what he considered the debilitating role of thought, imagination and theory in the creative act. Doubt was just as indispensable to Balzac himself as was exhaustive work. On the one side he was convinced that excessive reflection dissipates into doubt; on the other, that no authentic masterpiece could be born without doubt. This is the essential conflict in The Unknown Masterpiece , and in many subsequent works of imagination in the nineteenth century. The problem of doubt is linked in Balzac's mind with the problem of abstraction. Frenhofer says that nature provides a succession of rounded outlines that run into one another, but that there are no lines in nature. The artist, then, is faced with the problem of abstracting from nature its essential forms. These, Balzac believed in an almost Platonic mode, were accessible only in that abstract realm of second sight. The abyss was infinity, feared and yet longed for by artists. 'None of your savants has drawn this simple induction', he writes in Sé'raphita , 'that the curve is the law of material worlds, and the straight line that of spiritual worlds: the one is the theory of finite creations, the other is the theory of the infinite.' (Impossible not to be struck with the
world that Mondrian and Malevich created with these very principles, almost a century later.)
Through his hunger for mystery, an artist such as Frenhofer can be tempted into other worlds, unintelligible to his confreres. Frenhofer himself recognizes this in his description to his two friends of La Belle Noiseuse . 'My painting is not a painting, it is a sentiment, a passion !' Porbus finds himself at a loss. Is Frenhofer sane or mad? 'Was he under the spell of an artist's caprice, or were the ideas he expressed attributable to the strange fanaticism produced in us by the long and painful delivery of a great work?' Clearly Frenhofer had gone to what Balzac called in Séraphita the higher abysses, 'the sphere to which meditation leads the scholar, to which prayer transports the religious mind, to which his visions entice an artist, to which sleep carries some men; for every man has his voice to beckon him to the higher abysses'. Some twenty years later Baudelaire was to identify this voice as 'modern' when he characterized modern art as reflecting intimacy, spirituality, colour and aspiration to the absolute.
The implacable thirst for the absolute made Balzac wary and he argued with himself, marshalling all his experience. He associated it with the state of trance in which an artist's highest moments occur. Yet again, he confirms his own doubts in the face of Porbus's practical suggestions and presses his notion that the artist is beside himself, outside himself, beyond himself as he creates. Frenhofer was not finally mad in Balzac's eyes, at least not incontestably mad. His view of the artist and his 'riotous nature' was always tinged with a sense of mystery he could not expunge in his own functioning as an artist. In notes for Des Artistes , begun in 1836, he writes of the artist:
He has recognized that he is not himself in the secret of his intelligence. He operates under the empire of certain circumstances of which the coming together is a mystery. He doesn't belong to himself. He is the plaything of an eminently capricious force . . . Such is the artist: humble instrument of a despotic voluptuousness, he obeys a master.
Neither Lord Byron, nor Goethe, nor Walter Scott, nor Cuvier, nor the inventor belongs to himself; they are slaves to their idea; and this mysterious power is more jealous than a woman; she absorbs them, makes them live and kills them for her own benefit.
A few years later, in 1843, in Les Martyres Ignorés , Balzac reiterates the theme:
I wanted to tell you a secret: Thought is more powerful than the body; thought devours it, absorbs it and destroys it; thought is the most violent of all agents of destruction; it is the veritable exterminating angel of humanity that kills and animates, because it does animate and kill. My experiences have been geared to resolve this problem, and I am convinced that the span of life is in relation to the force that the individual can oppose to thought; the basis is temperament. . . . Do you know what I mean by thought? The passions, the vices, extreme occupations, sorrows, pleasures are torrents of thought.
And in Masshnilla Doni , written in 1837:
When an artist has the misfortune to be carried away by the emotion he seeks to express, he cannot do so, because he has become the thing itself instead of being its
instrument. Art proceeds from the brain, not from the heart. When you are dominated by a subject, you are its slave and not its master.
Finally, Balzac clearly tells us his artistic intentions in his 'philosophic' works in a letter to Mme Hanska of 24 May 1837:
Massimilla Doni and Gambara are, in the Philosophic Studies, the apparition of music under the double form of execution and composition , submitted to the same test as thought in Louis Lambert ; that is to say, the work and its execution are killed by the too great abundance of the creative principle - that which dictated to me The Unknown Masterpiece in respect to painting.
But were Frenhofer's ten years of work squandered? Was he suffering delusions? It is here that the wisdom of Balzac's statement that 'it is the property of a good fable that the author himself does not know all the riches it contains' is most pertinent. What has haunted the imaginations of so many artists subsequently is the climax of the fable, open to so many interpretations. When Frenhofer in a frenzied state finally reveals his masterpiece, he exclaims:
'Where is art? lost, vanished! Those are the outlines of a real young woman. Have I not . . . caught the living turn of the line that seems to mark the limits of the body? Is it not the same phenomenon presented by objects that swim in the atmosphere like fish in the water?'
But the other painters saw 'nothing there but colours piled upon one another in confusion, and held in restraint by a multitude of curious lines which form a wall of painting.'
It is this description that lingers in the memory of modern artists. Some, such as deKooning, have seen an avatar of cubism in this brief description, while others have seen in it the prophecy of totally abstract painting. Nearly everyone recognizes the peculiarly modern impulse to render the absolute, the impossible, the unknown - what Paul Klee called the prehistory of the visible.
There is yet another revelation in Frenhofer's painting. Once they have seen it as a wall of painting, Porbus and Poussin step closer:
In coming closer they noticed in a comer of the canvas the tip of a bare foot which emerged from this chaos of colours, tones, vague nuances, a kind of mist without form; but a marvellous foot, a living foot ! . . . This foot appeared there like the torso of some Venus in Parian marble rising up among the ruins of a burned city.
Balzac's painting harbours the sources of the dialectical conflict of all modem painting. The presence of that foot, that living foot within the wall of paint, the web of line - the abstraction that floated Frenhofer beyond the range of communication with his contemporaries - calls up the other side of the question. Balzac says that the two younger painters were beginning to understand, but only vaguely, the 'trance' in which Frenhofer lived. We know' from Lords Lambert that the trance was a necessary state for certain kinds of creation. In discussing the Apocalypse Louis calls it 'a written trance'. Yet, remembering the risks of angelism, Balzac has Porbus say, 'That marks the end of our art on earth.' Finally, Frenhofer is discovered dead the following morning, having burned his pictures.
The question, where is the picture? seems to us a modern question, and it was implicit in the dialogues of the nineteenth century. Gautier's description of Balzac's house at Jardies reminds us that for him and his circle a picture existed as much in the imagination as on canvas:
The magnificence of Jardies had slight existence save in dreams. All Balzac's friends remember having written upon the bare walls or grey paper hangings 'Palissandrian wainscotting, Gobelin tapestry, Venetian glass, pictures by Raphael'. Gérard de Nerval had already decorated an apartment in the same manner.
Victor Hugo, describing his visit to Balzac's last house, also remarks on the imaginary decor of his old abode as distinct from the final house where there were real paintings. At Jardies, Hugo remembers, there were magnificent inscriptions on the walls indicating the fictive presence of paintings by Raphael, Titian and Rembrandt. (Hugo also supplies us with the names of a few of the painters Balzac finally managed to collect, among them Porbus, Holbein, Cranach, Boucher and a Dürer portrait of Melanchthon. We also know from the sales catalogue of Balzac's widow that in 1872 there were two Chardins and two paintings attributed to Rembrandt. Some historians speculate that the paintings named in Le Cousin Ports may at one time have been in Balzac's collection - works said to be by Giorgione, Sebastiano dePiombo, Hobbema, and Géricault.)
Balzac's fable, or his inspiring myth, remains alive for modern art because, as Valéry intoned, 'In the beginning was the Fable !' He concurred with Balzac's view of a world without laws of time and space, the world invented by eccentric geniuses such as Frenhofer, abstract to the verge of mystery. 'What would we be', Valéry asks, 'without the help of what does not exist? Not very much, and our very unoccupied minds would pine away if myths, fables, misunderstandings, abstractions, beliefs and monsters, hypotheses and the so-called problems of metaphysics did not people the darkness and the depths of our natures with abstract creations and images.'
Frenhofer's last cogent words to his two admirers, 'one must have faith, faith in art, and live a long, long while with one's work, to produce such a creation', speak to the spiritually deprived modern soul. The necessity for myth has not retreated and certain myths are indispensable. The myth of Frenhofer's unknown masterpiece (which was unknown or unrecognized not only in the physical sense but in the moral sense as well) will continue to be astonishing and inspirational because the conundrums implicit in it are still with us. Frenhofer is the archetypal modern artist, existing in a constant state of anxiety, plagued by metaphysical doubt. He is recognizable to modern painters who have pushed beyond appearances, as Porbus says Frenhofer did, to higher and further reaches than most painters. They are regions where loneliness, or 'alienation', is the common condition; where no compromises are permitted; where there can be no juste milieu . Mankind, says Balzac gloomily in Séraphita , continues to live as it lived yesterday, as it lived in the first Olympiad, as it lived on the date after the Creation of the day before the great catastrophe: 'Doubt covers everything with its waves.'