The Unknown Masterpiece, by Honoré de Balzac


Catherine Lescault

Three months after Poussin and Porbus met, the latter went to see Master Frenhofer. The old man had fallen a victim to one of those profound and spontaneous fits of discouragement that are caused, according to medical logicians, by indigestion, flatulence, fever, or enlargement of the spleen; or, if you take the opinion of the Spiritualists, by the imperfections of our mortal nature. The good man had simply overworked himself in putting the finishing touches to his mysterious picture. He was lounging in a huge carved oak chair, covered with black leather, and did not change his listless attitude, but glanced at Porbus like a man who has settled down into low spirits.

“Well, master,” said Porbus, “was the ultramarine bad that you sent for to Bruges? Is the new white difficult to grind? Is the oil poor, or are the brushes recalcitrant?”

“Alas!” cried the old man, “for a moment I thought that my work was finished, but I am sure that I am mistaken in certain details, and I can not rest until I have cleared my doubts. I am thinking of traveling. I am going to Turkey, to Greece, to Asia, in quest of a model, so as to compare my picture with the different living forms of Nature. Perhaps,” and a smile of contentment stole over his face, “perhaps I have Nature herself up there. At times I am half afraid that a breath may waken her, and that she will escape me.”

He rose to his feet as if to set out at once.

“Aha!” said Porbus, “I have come just in time to save you the trouble and expense of a journey.”

“What?” asked Frenhofer in amazement.

“Young Poussin is loved by a woman of incomparable and flawless beauty. But, dear master, if he consents to lend her to you, at the least you ought to let us see your work.”

The old man stood motionless and completely dazed.

“What!” he cried piteously at last, “show you my creation, my bride? Rend the veil that has kept my happiness sacred? It would be an infamous profanation. For ten years I have lived with her; she is mine, mine alone; she loves me. Has she not smiled at me, at each stroke of the brush upon the canvas? She has a soul — the soul that I have given her. She would blush if any eyes but mine should rest on her. To exhibit her! Where is the husband, the lover so vile as to bring the woman he loves to dishonor? When you paint a picture for the court, you do not put your whole soul into it; to courtiers you sell lay figures duly colored. My painting is no painting, it is a sentiment, a passion. She was born in my studio, there she must dwell in maiden solitude, and only when clad can she issue thence. Poetry and women only lay the last veil aside for their lovers Have we Rafael’s model, Ariosto’s Angelica, Dante’s Beatrice? Nay, only their form and semblance. But this picture, locked away above in my studio, is an exception in our art. It is not a canvas, it is a woman — a woman with whom I talk. I share her thoughts, her tears, her laughter. Would you have me fling aside these ten years of happiness like a cloak? Would you have me cease at once to be father, lover, and creator? She is not a creature, but a creation.

“Bring your young painter here. I will give him my treasures; I will give him pictures by Correggio and Michelangelo and Titian; I will kiss his footprints in the dust; but make him my rival! Shame on me. Ah! ah! I am a lover first, and then a painter. Yes, with my latest sigh I could find strength to burn my ‘Belle Noiseuse’; but — compel her to endure the gaze of a stranger, a young man and a painter! — Ah! no, no! I would kill him on the morrow who should sully her with a glance! Nay, you, my friend, I would kill you with my own hands in a moment if you did not kneel in reverence before her! Now, will you have me submit my idol to the careless eyes and senseless criticisms of fools? Ah! love is a mystery; it can only live hidden in the depths of the heart. You say, even to your friend, ‘Behold her whom I love,’ and there is an end of love.”

The old man seemed to have grown young again; there was light and life in his eyes, and a faint flush of red in his pale face. His hands shook. Porbus was so amazed by the passionate vehemence of Frenhofer’s words that he knew not what to reply to this utterance of an emotion as strange as it was profound. Was Frenhofer sane or mad? Had he fallen a victim to some freak of the artist’s fancy? or were these ideas of his produced by the strange lightheadedness which comes over us during the long travail of a work of art. Would it be possible to come to terms with this singular passion?

Harassed by all these doubts, Porbus spoke —“Is it not woman for woman?” he said. “Does not Poussin submit his mistress to your gaze?”

“What is she?” retorted the other. “A mistress who will be false to him sooner or later. Mine will be faithful to me forever.”

“Well, well,” said Porbus, “let us say no more about it. But you may die before you will find such a flawless beauty as hers, even in Asia, and then your picture will be left unfinished.

“Oh! it is finished,” said Frenhof er. “Standing before it you would think that it was a living woman lying on the velvet couch beneath the shadow of the curtains. Perfumes are burning on a golden tripod by her side. You would be tempted to lay your hand upon the tassel of the cord that holds back the curtains; it would seem to you that you saw her breast rise and fall as she breathed; that you beheld the living Catherine Lescault, the beautiful courtezan whom men called ‘La Belle Noiseuse.’ And yet — if I could but be sure —”

“Then go to Asia,” returned Porbus, noticing a certain indecision in Frenhofer’s face. And with that Porbus made a few steps toward the door. By that time Gillette and Nicolas Poussin had reached Frenhofer’s house. The girl drew away her arm from her lover’s as she stood on the threshold, and shrank back as if some presentiment flashed through her mind.

“Oh! what have I come to do here?” she asked of her lover in low vibrating tones, with her eyes fixed on his.

“Gillette, I have left you to decide; I am ready to obey you in everything. You are my conscience and my glory. Go home again; I shall be happier, perhaps, if you do not —”

“Am I my own when you speak to me like that? No, no; I am a child. — Come,” she added, seemingly with a violent effort; “if our love dies, if I plant a long regret in my heart, your fame will be the reward of my obedience to your wishes, will it not? Let us go in. I shall still live on as a memory on your palette; that shall be life for me afterward.”

The door opened, and the two lovers encountered Porbus, who was surprised by the beauty of Gillette, whose eyes were full of tears. He hurried her, trembling from head to foot, into the presence of the old painter.

“Here!” he cried, “is she not worth all the masterpieces in the world!”

Frenhofer trembled. There stood Gillette in the artless and childlike attitude of some timid and innocent Georgian, carried off by brigands, and confronted with a slave merchant. A shamefaced red flushed her face, her eyes drooped, her hands hung by her side, her strength seemed to have failed her, her tears protested against this outrage. Poussin cursed himself in despair that he should have brought his fair treasure from its hiding-place. The lover overcame the artist, and countless doubts assailed Poussin’s heart when he saw youth dawn in the old man’s eyes, as, like a painter, he discerned every line of the form hidden beneath the young girl’s vesture. Then the lover’s savage jealousy awoke.

“Gillette!” he cried, “let us go.”

The girl turned joyously at the cry and the tone in which it was uttered, raised her eyes to his, looked at him, and fled to his arms.

“Ah! then you love me,” she cried; “you love me!” and she burst into tears.

She had spirit enough to suffer in silence, but she had no strength to hide her joy.

“Oh! leave her with me for one moment,” said the old painter, “and you shall compare her with my Catherine . . . yes — I consent.”

Frenhofer’s words likewise came from him like a lover’s cry. His vanity seemed to be engaged for his semblance of womanhood; he anticipated the triumph of the beauty of his own creation over the beauty of the living girl.

“Do not give him time to change his mind!” cried Porbus, striking Poussin on the shoulder. “The flower of love soon fades, but the flower of art is immortal.”

“Then am I only a woman now for him?” said Gillette. She was watching Poussin and Porbus closely.

She raised her head proudly; she glanced at Frenhofer, and her eyes flashed; then as she saw how her lover had fallen again to gazing at the portrait which he had taken at first for a Giorgione —

“Ah!” she cried; “let us go up to the studio. He never gave me such a look.”

The sound of her voice recalled Poussin from his dreams.

“Old man,” he said, “do you see this blade? I will plunge it into your heart at the first cry from this young girl; I will set fire to your house, and no one shall leave it alive. Do you understand?”

Nicolas Poussin scowled; every word was a menace. Gillette took comfort from the young painter’s bearing, and yet more from that gesture, and almost forgave him for sacrificing her to his art and his glorious future.

Porbus and Poussin stood at the door of the studio and looked at each other in silence. At first the painter of the Saint Mary of Egypt hazarded some exclamations: “Ah! she has taken off her clothes; he told her to come into the light — he is comparing the two!” but the sight of the deep distress in Poussin’s face suddenly silenced him; and though old painters no longer feel these scruples, so petty in the presence of art, he admired them because they were so natural and gracious in the lover. The young man kept his hand on the hilt of his dagger, and his ear was almost glued to the door. The two men standing in the shadow might have been conspirators waiting for the hour when they might strike down a tyrant.

“Come in, come in,” cried the old man. He was radiant with delight. “My work is perfect. I can show her now with pride. Never shall painter, brushes, colors, light, and canvas produce a rival for ‘Catherine Lescault,’ the beautiful courtezan!”

Porbus and Poussin, burning with eager curiosity, hurried into a vast studio. Everything was in disorder and covered with dust, but they saw a few pictures here and there upon the wall. They stopped first of all in admiration before the life-size figure of a woman partially draped.

“Oh! never mind that,” said Frenhofer; “that is a rough daub that I made, a study, a pose, it is nothing. These are my failures,” he went on, indicating the enchanting compositions upon the walls of the studio.

This scorn for such works of art struck Porbus and Poussin dumb with amazement. They looked round for the picture of which he had spoken, and could not discover it.

“Look here!” said the old man. His hair was disordered, his face aglow with a more than human exaltation, his eyes glittered, he breathed hard like a young lover frenzied by love.

“Aha!” he cried, “you did not expect to see such perfection! You are looking for a picture, and you see a woman before you. There is such depth in that canvas, the atmosphere is so true that you can not distinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is art? Art has vanished, it is invisible! It is the form of a living girl that you see before you. Have I not caught the very hues of life, the spirit of the living line that defines the figure? Is there not the effect produced there like that which all natural objects present in the atmosphere about them, or fishes in the water? Do you see how the figure stands out against the background? Does it not seem to you that you pass your hand along the back? But then for seven years I studied and watched how the daylight blends with the objects on which it falls. And the hair, the light pours over it like a flood, does it not? . . . Ah! she breathed, I am sure that she breathed! Her breast — ah, see! Who would not fall on his knees before her? Her pulses throb. She will rise to her feet. Wait!”

“Do you see anything?” Poussin asked of Porbus.

“No . . . do you?”

“I see nothing.”

The two painters left the old man to his ecstasy, and tried to ascertain whether the light that fell full upon the canvas had in some way neutralized all the effect for them. They moved to the right and left of the picture; they came in front, bending down and standing upright by turns.

“Yes, yes, it is really canvas,” said Frenhofer, who mistook the nature of this minute investigation.

“Look! the canvas is on a stretcher, here is the easel; indeed, here are my colors, my brushes,” and he took up a brush and held it out to them, all unsuspicious of their thought.

“The old lansquenet is laughing at us,” said Poussin, coming once more toward the supposed picture. “I can see nothing there but confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.”

“We are mistaken, look!” said Porbus.

In a corner of the canvas, as they came nearer, they distinguished a bare foot emerging from the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog. Its living delicate beauty held them spellbound. This fragment that had escaped an incomprehensible, slow, and gradual destruction seemed to them like the Parian marble torso of some Venus emerging from the ashes of a ruined town.

“There is a woman beneath,” exclaimed Porbus, calling Poussin’s attention to the coats of paint with which the old artist had overlaid and concealed his work in the quest of perfection.

Both artists turned involuntarily to Frenhofer. They began to have some understanding, vague though it was, of the ecstasy in which he lived.

“He believes it in all good faith,” said Porbus.

“Yes, my friend,” said the old man, rousing himself from his dreams, “it needs faith, faith in art, and you must live for long with your work to produce such a creation. What toil some of those shadows have cost me. Look! there is a faint shadow there upon the cheek beneath the eyes — if you saw that on a human face, it would seem to you that you could never render it with paint. Do you think that that effect has not cost unheard of toil?

“But not only so, dear Porbus. Look closely at my work, and you will understand more clearly what I was saying as to methods of modeling and outline. Look at the high lights on the bosom, and see how by touch on touch, thickly laid on, I have raised the surface so that it catches the light itself and blends it with the lustrous whiteness of the high lights, and how by an opposite process, by flattening the surface of the paint, and leaving no trace of the passage of the brush, I have succeeded in softening the contours of my figures and enveloping them in half-tints until the very idea of drawing, of the means by which the effect is produced, fades away, and the picture has the roundness and relief of nature. Come closer. You will see the manner of working better; at a little distance it can not be seen. There I Just there, it is, I think, very plainly to be seen,” and with the tip of his brush he pointed out a patch of transparent color to the two painters.

Porbus, laying a hand on the old artist’s shoulder, turned to Poussin with a “Do you know that in him we see a very great painter?”

“He is even more of a poet than a painter,” Poussin answered gravely.

“There,” Porbus continued, as he touched the canvas, “Use the utmost limit of our art on earth.”

“Beyond that point it loses itself in the skies,” said Poussin.

“What joys lie there on this piece of canvas!” exclaimed Porbus.

The old man, deep in his own musings, smiled at the woman he alone beheld, and did not hear.

“But sooner or later he will find out that there is nothing there!” cried Poussin.

“Nothing on my canvas!” said Frenhofer, looking in turn at either painter and at his picture.

“What have you done?” muttered Porbus, turning to Poussin.

The old man clutched the young painter’s arm and said, “Do you see nothing? clodpatel Huguenot! varlet! cullion! What brought you here into my studio? — My good Porbus,” he went on, as he turned to the painter, “are you also making a fool of me? Answer! I am your friend. Tell me, have I ruined my picture after all?”

Porbus hesitated and said nothing, but there was such intolerable anxiety in the old man’s white face that he pointed to the easel.

“Look!” he said.

Frenhofer looked for a moment at his picture, and staggered back.

“Nothing! nothing! After ten years of work . . . ” He sat down and wept.

“So I am a dotard, a madman, I have neither talent nor power! I am only a rich man, who works for his own pleasure, and makes no progress, I have done nothing after all!”

He looked through his tears at his picture. Suddenly he rose and stood proudly before the two painters.

“By the body and blood of Christ,” he cried with flashing eyes, “you are jealous! You would have me think that my picture is a failure because you want to steal her from me! Ah! I see her, I see her,” he cried “she is marvelously beautiful . . . ”

At that moment Poussin heard the sound of weeping; Gillette was crouching forgotten in a corner. All at once the painter once more became the lover. “What is it, my angel?” he asked her.

“Kill me!” she sobbed. “I must be a vile thing if I love you still, for I despise you. . . . I admire you, and I hate you! I love you, and I feel that I hate you even now!”

While Gillette’s words sounded in Poussin’s ears, Frenhof er drew a green serge covering over his “Catherine” with the sober deliberation of a jeweler who locks his drawers when he suspects his visitors to be expert thieves. He gave the two painters a profoundly astute glance that expressed to the full his suspicions, and his contempt for them, saw them out of his studio with impetuous haste and in silence, until from the threshold of his house he bade them “Good-by, my young friends!”

That farewell struck a chill of dread into the two painters. Porbus, in anxiety, went again on the morrow to see Frenhofer, and learned that he had died in the night after burning his canvases.

Paris, February, 1832.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51