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.