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The Unknown Masterpiece and Other Stories
By Honoré de Balzac, John Berseth
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE UNKNOWN MASTERPIECE
TO A LORD. 1845.
TOWARD THE END of the year 1612, on a cold December morning, a young man whose clothing looked very thin was walking to and fro in front of the door to a house located on the Rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris. After walking on that street for quite some time with the indecision of a lover who lacks the courage to visit his first mistress, no matter how easy her virtue, he finally crossed the threshold of that door and asked whether Master François Pourbus was at home. On the affirmative reply made by an old woman busy sweeping a low-ceilinged room, the young man slowly climbed the steps, stopping from stair to stair like some recently appointed courtier worried about how the king will receive him. When he reached the top of the spiral staircase, he remained on the landing for a while, unsure about seizing the grotesque knocker that decorated the door to the studio in which Henri IV's painter, abandoned by Marie de Médicis in favor of Rubens, was no doubt working. The young man was experiencing that profound emotion that must have stirred the heart of all great artists when, at the height of their youth and love of art, they approached a man of genius or some masterpiece. There exists in all human feelings a pristine purity, engendered by a noble enthusiasm, that gradually grows weaker until happiness is only a memory, and glory a lie. Among these delicate emotions, the one most resembling love is the youthful ardor of an artist beginning the delicious torture of his destiny of glory and misfortune, an ardor full of audacity and shyness, of vague beliefs and inevitable discouragements. The man who, short of money but of budding genius, has never felt a sharp thrill when introducing himself to a master, will always be lacking a string in his heart, some stroke of the brush, a certain feeling in his work, some poetic expressiveness. If a few braggarts, puffed up with themselves, believe in their future too soon, only fools consider them wise. Judging by this, the young stranger seemed to possess real merit, if talent can be measured by that initial shyness, by that indefinable modesty that men slated for glory are prone to lose during the practice of their art, just as pretty women lose theirs in the habits of coquetry. Being accustomed to triumph lessens one's self-doubt, and modesty may be a form of doubt.
Overwhelmed with poverty and, at that moment, surprised at his own presumptuousness, the poor novice wouldn't have entered the studio of the painter to whom we owe the admirable portrait of Henri IV if it hadn't been for an unusual helping hand sent his way by chance. An old man came up the stairs. From the oddness of his clothes, from the magnificence of his lace collar, from the exceptional self-assurance of his gait, the young man guessed that this person must be the painter's protector or friend; he moved back on the landing to give him room and studied him with curiosity, hoping to find in him the good nature of an artist or the helpful disposition of an art lover; but he discerned something diabolical in that face, and especially that indefinable something which attracts artists. Imagine a bald, convex, jutting forehead, sloping down to a small, flat nose turned up at the end like Rabelais' or Socrates'; a smiling, wrinkled mouth; a short chin, lifted proudly and adorned with a gray beard cut in a point; sea-green eyes apparently dimmed by age but which, through the contrast of the pearly white in which the irises swam, must sometimes cast hypnotic looks at the height of anger or enthusiasm. In addition, his face was singularly withered by the labors of old age, and still more by the kind of thoughts that hollow out both the soul and the body. His eyes had no more lashes, and only a few traces of eyebrows could be made out above their protruding ridges. Place this head on a thin, weak body, encircle it with sparkling-white lace of openwork like that of a fish slice, throw onto the old man's black doublet a heavy gold chain, and you will have an imperfect picture of that character, whom the feeble daylight of the staircase lent an additional tinge of the fantastic. You would have thought him a Rembrandt painting, walking silently without a frame in the dark atmosphere which that great painter made all his own. The old man cast a glance imbued with wisdom at the young man, knocked three times at the door, and said to the sickly man of about forty who opened it: "Good day, master."
Pourbus bowed respectfully; he let the young man in, thinking the old man had brought him along, and didn't trouble himself over him, especially since the novice was under the spell that born painters must undergo at the view of the first studio they've seen, where they can discover some of the practical methods of their art. A skylight in the vaulted ceiling illuminated Master Pourbus' studio. Falling directly onto a canvas attached to the easel, on which only three or four white lines had been placed, the daylight didn't reach the black depths of the corners of that vast room; but a few stray reflections in that russet shadow ignited a silvery flash on the belly of a knight's breastplate hung on the wall; streaked with a sudden furrow of light the carved, waxed cornice of an antique sideboard laden with curious platters; or jabbed with brilliant dots the grainy weave of some old curtains of gold brocade with large, sharp folds, thrown there as models. Plaster anatomical figures, fragments and torsos of ancient goddesses, lovingly polished by the kisses of the centuries, were strewn over the shelves and consoles. Innumerable sketches, studies in three colors of crayon, in sanguine, or in pen and ink, covered the walls up to the ceiling. Paintboxes, bottles of oil and turpentine, and overturned stools left only a narrow path to reach the aureole projected by the tall window, whose beams fell directly onto Pourbus' pale face and the peculiar man's ivory-colored cranium. The young man's attention was soon claimed exclusively by a painting which, in that time of chaos and revolutions, had already become famous and was visited by some of those obstinate men to whom we owe the preservation of the sacred fire in dark days. That beautiful canvas depicted Saint Mary of Egypt preparing to pay her boat fare. That masterpiece, painted for Marie de Médicis, was sold by her when she had become destitute.
"I like your saint," the old man said to Pourbus, "and I'd pay ten gold écus for it over and above what the queen is paying; but, compete with her? Never!"
"You find it good?"
"Hm, hm!" said the old man. "Good? Yes and no. Your lady isn't badly set up, but she's not alive. You people think you've done it all when you've drawn a figure correctly and you've put everything in the right place according to the laws of anatomy! You color in that outline with a flesh tone prepared in advance on your palette, making sure to keep one side darker than the other, and because from time to time you look at a naked woman standing on a table, you think you've copied nature, you imagine you're painters and that you've stolen God's secrets! Brrr! To be a great poet, it's not enough to have a full command of syntax and avoid solecisms of language! Look at your saint, will you, Pourbus? At first glance she seems admirable; but at the second look, you notice that she's glued to the background and that you could never walk all around her. She's a silhouette with only one side, she's a cutout likeness, an image that couldn't turn around or shift position. I feel no air between this arm and the field of the picture; space and depth are lacking; and yet the perspective is quite correct, and the atmospheric gradation of tones is precisely observed; but, despite such laudable efforts, I can't believe that that beautiful body is animated by the warm breath of life. It seems to me that, if I placed my hand on that bosom so firm and round, I'd find it as cold as marble! No, my friend, the blood isn't flowing beneath that ivory skin, life is not swelling with its crimson dew the veins and capillaries that intertwine in networks beneath the transparent amber of the temples and chest. This spot is throbbing, but this other spot is rigid; life and death are locked in combat in every detail: here she's a woman, there she's a statue, over there she's a corpse. Your creation is incomplete. You've been able to breathe only a portion of your soul into your beloved work. Prometheus' torch has gone out more than once in your hands, and many places in your painting haven't been touched by the heavenly flame."
"But why is that, dear master?" Pourbus respectfully asked the old man, while the youngster had difficulty repressing a strong urge to strike him.
"Ah! This is it," said the little old man. "You've wavered indecisively between the two systems, between drawing and color, between the painstaking stolidity and precise stiffness of the old German masters and the dazzling fervor and felicitous richness of the Italian painters. You wanted to imitate Hans Holbein and Titian, Albrecht Dürer and Paolo Veronese, at the same time. Certainly that was a magnificent ambition! But what happened? You haven't achieved either the austere charm of dryness or the deceptive magic of chiaroscuro. In this spot here, like molten bronze cracking a mold that's too weak for it, Titian's rich, blonde color has smashed through the thin outline à la Dürer into which you had poured it. In other places, the outline resisted, and restrained the magnificent outpouring of the Venetian palette. Your figure is neither perfectly drawn nor perfectly painted, and everywhere it bears the traces of that unfortunate indecisiveness. If you didn't feel strong enough to weld together in the flame of your genius the two competing manners, you should have opted openly for one or the other, so you could achieve that unity which simulates one of the conditions of life. You are true only in the interior sections; your outlines are false, they fail to join up properly, and they don't indicate that there's anything behind them. There's truth here," said the old man, pointing to the saint's chest. "And then here," he continued, indicating the place on the painting where the shoulder ended. "But here," he said, returning to the center of the bosom, "everything is false. Let's not analyze it, it would drive you to despair."
The old man sat down on a stool, held his head in his hands, and fell silent.
"Master," Pourbus said to him, "all the same, I studied that bosom from a nude live model; but, to our misfortune, there are true effects in nature that are no longer lifelike on the canvas ..."
"The mission of art is not to copy nature but to express it! You're not a cheap copyist but a poet!" the old man exclaimed hotly, interrupting Pourbus with a lordly gesture. "Otherwise a sculptor would be through with all his labors if he just took a cast of a woman! Well now, just try taking a cast of your sweetheart's hand and setting it down in front of you; you'll find a hideous corpse that's not at all like the real thing, and you'll be compelled to seek out the chisel of a man who wouldn't copy it exactly for you, but would depict its movement and its life for you. Our job is to grasp the spirit, the soul, the face of objects and living beings. Effects! Effects! They're merely the incidental phenomena of life, not life itself. A hand, since I've chosen that example, a hand isn't merely part of a body, it expresses and prolongs an idea that must be grasped and rendered. Neither the painter, nor the poet, nor the sculptor should separate the effect from the cause, since they're inevitably interconnected! The real struggle is there! Many painters achieve an instinctive sort of success without knowing that theme of art. You draw a woman, but you don't see her! That's not the way to make nature yield up her secrets. Your hand, without any thought on your part, reproduces the model you had copied in your teacher's studio. You don't delve sufficiently into the intimate depths of the form, you don't pursue it with sufficient love and perseverance through its twists and turns and its elusive maneuvers. Beauty is something austere and difficult that cannot be attained that way; you have to wait for the right moment, spy it out, seize it, and hug it tight to force it to surrender. Form is a Proteus much more unseizable and rich in hidden secrets than the Proteus of legend; it's only after lengthy struggles that you can compel it to show itself in its true guise; all of you are satisfied with the first semblance it yields to you, or at most the second, or the third; that's not how victorious fighters go about it! Those unvanquished painters don't allow themselves to be deceived by all those subterfuges; they persevere until nature is forced to show itself bare, in its true spirit. That's how Raphael went about it," said the old man, taking off his black velvet cap to show the respect he felt for the king of art; "his great superiority is due to the intimate sense which, in his works, seems set on breaking through form. In his figures, form is what it is in us, an interpreter of ideas and feelings, a great poetry. Every figure is a world, a portrait whose model appeared in a sublime vision, colored by light, pointed out by an inner voice, stripped bare by a heavenly finger that showed the sources of expression within the past of an entire lifetime. You make beautiful robes of flesh for your women, beautiful draperies of hair, but where is the blood that produces either calm or passion and causes particular effects? Your saint is a brunette, but this here, my poor Pourbus, is suitable for a blonde! And so your figures are pale, colored-in phantoms that you trot out before us, and you call that painting and art. Because you've produced something that looks more like a woman than like a house, you think you've hit the mark; and, really proud because you no longer need to label your figures currus venustus or pulcher homo, the way the earliest painters did, you imagine you're wonderful artists! Ha, ha! You're not there yet, my worthy friends, you'll have to use up many a crayon and cover many a canvas before you get there. Of course, a woman carries her head this way, she holds her skirt like that, her eyes grow languid and melt with that air of resigned gentleness, that's the way that the fluttering shadow of her lashes hovers over her cheeks! It's right, and it isn't. What's missing? A trifle, but that trifle is everything. You have the semblance of life, but you aren't expressing its overflowing superabundance, that indefinable something, which may be the soul, hovering like a cloud above the outer husk; in short, that bloom of life which Titian and Raphael captured. Starting out from where you've left off, some excellent painting might be achieved; but you get tired too soon. The layman admires you, but the true connoisseur merely smiles. O Mabuse, my teacher," that odd character added, "you're a thief, you stole life when you died!—Aside from that," he resumed, "this canvas is better than the paintings of that brute Rubens, with his mountains of Flemish meat, sprinkled with vermilion, his tidal waves of red hair, and his glaring colors. At least you've got color, feeling, and drawing there, the three essential components of art."
"But that saint is sublime, my good man!" the young man called out loudly, emerging from his deep daydreams. "These two figures, the saint and the boatman, have a subtlety of purpose that the Italian painters have no notion of; I don't know one of them who could have created the indecisiveness of the boatman."
"Does this little rascal belong to you?" Pourbus asked the old man.
"Alas, master, forgive my boldness," replied the novice, blushing. "I'm a nobody, a dauber of pictures by instinct who has recently arrived in this city, which is the fount of all knowledge."
"Get to work!" Pourbus said to him, offering him a red crayon and a sheet of paper.
The stranger nimbly made a line copy of the Saint Mary.
"Oh, ho!" cried the old man. "Your name?"
The young man signed "Nicolas Poussin" at the bottom.
"That's not bad for a beginner," said the odd character who had been speaking so extravagantly. "I see that it's possible to talk about painting in your presence. I don't blame you for having admired Pourbus' saint. It's a masterpiece for the world at large, and only those initiated into the deepest secrets of art can discover what's wrong with it. But, since you're worthy of the lesson, and able to understand, I'm going to show you just how little it would take to complete this picture. Be all eyes and give me complete attention; another opportunity like this to teach you may never occur again. Your palette, Pourbus?"
Pourbus went to get a palette and brushes. The little old man rolled up his sleeves in a convulsively brusque fashion, stuck his thumb into the palette, mottled and laden with paints, that Pourbus held out to him; he not so much took as ripped from his hands a fistful of brushes of all sizes, and his pointy beard suddenly started bobbing in menacing motions that expressed the urgings of an ardent imagination. While loading his brush with paint, he muttered between his teeth: "Here are tints that are only good enough to be thrown out the window along with the man who mixed them; they're revoltingly crude and false, how can I paint with this?" Then, with feverish energy, he dipped the tip of his brush into the various gobs of paint, at times running through their entire gamut more rapidly than a cathedral organist races from one end of his keyboard to another during the Easter O Filii.
Pourbus and Poussin remained motionless on either side of the canvas, sunk in the most vehement contemplation.
"Do you see, young man," said the old man without turning away, "do you see how, with three or four strokes and a little bluish glaze, it was possible to make the air circulate around the head of this poor saint, who must have been stifled, trapped in that thick atmosphere? See how this drapery now flutters and how one now realizes that the breeze is lifting it! Before, it looked like a starched cloth held up by pins. Do you notice how the gleaming gloss I've just put on her chest reproduces the plump suppleness of a girl's skin, and how the tint blended of red-brown and burnt ocher warms up the gray chill of this large shadow, in which the blood was coagulating instead of flowing? Young man, young man, what I'm showing you here, no master could teach you. Mabuse alone possessed the secret of giving figures life. Mabuse had only one pupil: me. I never had any, and I'm old! You have enough intelligence to guess the rest from what I allow you to glimpse."
Excerpted from The Unknown Masterpiece and Other Stories by Honoré de Balzac, John Berseth. Copyright © 1999 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
The Unknown Masterpiece
An Episode During the Terror
A Passion in the Desert
The Revolutionary Conscript