One of Honore de Balzac’s greatest stories, The Unknown Masterpiece1 is best revered as the 1832 tale of a painter who, as the full story reveals, is either a complete failure at his work or a genius at his craft. The story takes place at the famous studio on rue des Grandes-Augustin in Paris during the winter of 1612. Revolving around the work of a master painter named Frenhofer we learn about this eccentric old artist from the view of two other painters, an accomplished painter Francois Porbus and a young man new to the city, Nicolas Poussin. Frenhofer happens across Porbus’ studio one afternoon and quickly sets to critiquing his works, even though he admits that they are technically well done. In the midst of conversation, Frenhofer slips and admits that his own great masterpiece, in addition to all other works he had already produced to garner him the fame he commands in the story, is not quite finished. Immediately, Porbus and Poussin wish to view this painting – a request Frenhofer quickly denies. Not to be deterred, Poussin convinces his young idealistic mistress Gillette to pose (in the nude) for Frenhofer so that he may finish his work, allowing Porbus and Poussin to view the old master’s finished painting.
A short tale by some standards, the forty odd translated pages hold volumes worth of meaning. With discussions of what constitutes art, the morality of posing, and the finality of the artists’ interpretation of Frenhofer’s masterpiece, The Unknown Masterpiece has abundant themes open for analysis. It is an ideal conversation piece novella, and is very nearly required reading for any artist, most notably the painter.
The Unknown Masterpiece has been a story of inspiration for many famous artists such as Cezanne, Henry James, and Jacques Rivette. Most notably, however, the short work wooed Picasso in such a manner that he rented out a studio on rue des Grandes-Augustin which he believed to be the exact studio in Balzac’s story. It was in this studio that Picasso, 100 years after Balzac’s publishing of The Unknown Masterpiece, revealed Guernica2 to the public, his interpretative depiction of the social mood reflective of the Spanish Civil War. Even more interesting, however, is another piece Picasso was rumored to have painted, yet never took credit for. Painted in 1934, and referred to as either “Picasso’s Unknown Masterpiece” or “Picasso’s Black Painting”3 the painting itself has not been credited as an official Picasso by any member of the family estate. The piece features two women in attending to a third woman on a cross, bleeding out from her abdomen. There is a sun in the upper left corner, and a hidden profile of a bull near the legs of the crucified victim. The work employs a variety of styles which Picasso was progressing towards (as with Guernica), had many themes Picasso himself seemed obsessed with (bullfighting, crucifixion, fertility), and is even fingerprinted with black ink at the bottom (a “copyright” Picasso frequently used). There are two incidents of a hidden date, and two other occurrences of a signature hidden either behind paint, or in images incorporated in the painting. In short, if not an original Picasso, the copycat did their homework beforehand to make it most believable.
The importance of identifying the piece as a Picasso lies in that it would provide a missing link of styles and themes between his own works Three Dancers4 and Guernica. While the composition and even the contents of the 1934 work are extremely similar to Three Dancers, it contains much of the imagery in Guernica. While Frenhofer believed there was more to be seen in his Catherine Lescault (the title of his “perfect” painting), the 1934 painting could be used as a key to understand themes that Picasso himself may have hidden in plain view in other works of his. In this way, Picasso is a foil to Frenhofer-- the very character who may have inspired him to create such a work.