Commented summary of a novella published in 1831. Fantastic narrative on the theme of the artistic creation.
At the end of 1612, a young miserable painter is attracted towards Porbus’s door. Porbus , a great painter he worships. He takes advantage of the arrival of an old good carrying man to enter. Balzac describes the old man in the twilight of the staircase, as an alive painting of Rembrandt.
The young man is fascinated by a painting commanded by Marie de Medicis, representative Marie Egyptian. The old man examines the painting, and expresses his merciless opinion : Porbus copied nature, in attentive observer. But, his painting misses life. « The blood doesn’t run under this skin of ivory. » He blames him for having hesitated between two systems, the drawing and the color, the meticulous phlegm and the brilliant heat. At the same time, he was inspired by Holbein, Titien, Dürer and Veronese. He forgot that « the mission of the art is not to copy the nature, but to express it ». He evokes then the name of Mabuse (a name which will inspire the film-maker Fritz Lang) its Teacher.
Nevertheless, the young man gets a great impression with this painting. The old man orders him to execute a copy. Interesting. We ask him for his name : Nicolas Poussin. The old man, Teacher Frenhofer, complete then the work of the young Poussin (chicken little) to give life to his sketch. At the same time, he evokes his current work « La Belle Noiseuse » (title used by another film-maker : Jacques Rivette). His speech is clear. An artistic production is an immediate which doesn’t have to content with restoring faithfully what sees the artist. This work has to show the soul of the model while reflecting that of the artist. The essential is in the light resulting from the sun, giving always changeable impressions.
Frenhofer is obsessed by the desire to represent the feminin beauty in his elementary purity. But, where to find the perfect model ?
Poussin knows this ideal, Gillette his beloved whom he joins immediately. But, Gillette doesn’t like posing for Poussin who then doesn’t look at her any more as she likes. To pose for another painter ? It would be as to deceive Poussin. And him ? He doesn’t have any scrupule to reveal his beautiful woman to the eyes of another man ?
Three months later, Porbus comes to Frenhofer always in search of the feminine ideal. Porbus speaks to him about Gillette. In exchange, he asks to see the unfinished painting of Frenhofer. This one feels reluctant to accept, speaking about this painting, as it was his liked and chaste mistress. Poussin arrives then together with Gillette. Fascinated, Frenhofer takes Gillette in front of its painting, to perfect it.
Then, Porbus and Poussin can come to contemplate the masterpiece. Frenhofer presents it to them proudly. But, Porbus and Poussin see strictly nothing. At the same time, Frenhofer comments on its work. By approaching, Porbus and Poussin distinguish a naked foot in a corner of the painting. This foot appears from a chaos of colors, tones, indistinct nuances, as a fog. Just one foot. But so alive one foot ! Fragment of a slow and progressive destruction.
Regrettably, there where Frenhofer sees its ultimate masterpiece, two others see only this foot. At night, Frenhofer burns all his paintings before dying. Resentment ? Complete failure ? Madness ?
This two parts novella is impressive in many respects. We may know that they exist only in his imagination, we would like to see certain paintings Balzac describes ! He exploits several myths (Prométhée, Protée, Pygmalion and Orpheous) to give a fantastic dimension to its narrative. He speaks about artist’s job which feeds on what was produced before him and which has to advance by going much more far than the simple representation of the reality.
In some sentences, Balzac gives tracks to dig for some picturial tendences to come. With its words, the painting of Frenhofer « La Belle Noiseuse » takes terribly modern looks. The Impressionism (Impressions, soleil levant – Monet – 1872) is already there, latent, in the description of the painting. Better, this foot which Balzac describes, we easily imagine it taken out of a Cubist painting. Les demoiselles d''Avignon(1907) of Picasso by establishing only a first approach.
Seen on this angle, the choice of the fantasy was imperative. When we know how the first impressionistic paintings were welcomed… And what to say for the Cubists ?
The exact transposition of the reality ? The first daguerreotypes date 1839, while this novella was published in 1831. In painting, it gave the Hyper-realism.