THE UNKNOWN MASTERPIECE
By Honoré De Balzac
TO A LORD
On a cold December morning in the year 1612, a young man, whose clothing
was somewhat of the thinnest, was walking to and fro before a gateway in
the Rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris. He went up and down the street
before this house with the irresolution of a gallant who dares not venture
into the presence of the mistress whom he loves for the first time, easy
of access though she may be; but after a sufficiently long interval of
hesitation, he at last crossed the threshold and inquired of an old woman,
who was sweeping out a large room on the ground floor, whether Master
Porbus was within. Receiving a reply in the affirmative, the young man
went slowly up the staircase, like a gentleman but newly come to court,
and doubtful as to his reception by the king. He came to a stand once more
on the landing at the head of the stairs, and again he hesitated before
raising his hand to the grotesque knocker on the door of the studio, where
doubtless the painter was at work—Master Porbus, sometime painter in
ordinary to Henri IV till Mary de' Medici took Rubens into favor.
The young man felt deeply stirred by an emotion that must thrill the
hearts of all great artists when, in the pride of their youth and their
first love of art, they come into the presence of a master or stand before
a masterpiece. For all human sentiments there is a time of early
blossoming, a day of generous enthusiasm that gradually fades until
nothing is left of happiness but a memory, and glory is known for a
delusion. Of all these delicate and short-lived emotions, none so resemble
love as the passion of a young artist for his art, as he is about to enter
on the blissful martyrdom of his career of glory and disaster, of vague
expectations and real disappointments.
Those who have missed this experience in the early days of light purses;
who have not, in the dawn of their genius, stood in the presence of a
master and felt the throbbing of their hearts, will always carry in their
inmost souls a chord that has never been touched, and in their work an
indefinable quality will be lacking, a something in the stroke of the
brush, a mysterious element that we call poetry. The swaggerers, so puffed
up by self-conceit that they are confident over-soon of their success, can
never be taken for men of talent save by fools. From this point of view,
if youthful modesty is the measure of youthful genius, the stranger on the
staircase might be allowed to have something in him; for he seemed to
possess the indescribable diffidence, the early timidity that artists are
bound to lose in the course of a great career, even as pretty women lose
it as they make progress in the arts of coquetry. Self-distrust vanishes
as triumph succeeds to triumph, and modesty is, perhaps, distrust of
The poor neophyte was so overcome by the consciousness of his own
presumption and insignificance, that it began to look as if he was hardly
likely to penetrate into the studio of the painter, to whom we owe the
wonderful portrait of Henri IV. But fate was propitious; an old man came
up the staircase. From the quaint costume of this newcomer, his collar of
magnificent lace, and a certain serene gravity in his bearing, the first
arrival thought that this personage must be either a patron or a friend of
the court painter. He stood aside therefore upon the landing to allow the
visitor to pass, scrutinizing him curiously the while. Perhaps he might
hope to find the good nature of an artist or to receive the good offices
of an amateur not unfriendly to the arts; but besides an almost diabolical
expression in the face that met his gaze, there was that indescribable
something which has an irresistible attraction for artists.
Picture that face. A bald high forehead and rugged jutting brows above a
small flat nose turned up at the end, as in the portraits of Socrates and
Rabelais; deep lines about the mocking mouth; a short chin, carried
proudly, covered with a grizzled pointed beard; sea-green eyes that age
might seem to have dimmed were it not for the contrast between the iris
and the surrounding mother-of-pearl tints, so that it seemed as if under
the stress of anger or enthusiasm there would be a magnetic power to quell
or kindle in their glances. The face was withered beyond wont by the
fatigue of years, yet it seemed aged still more by the thoughts that had
worn away both soul and body. There were no lashes to the deep-set eyes,
and scarcely a trace of the arching lines of the eyebrows above them. Set
this head on a spare and feeble frame, place it in a frame of lace wrought
like an engraved silver fish-slice, imagine a heavy gold chain over the
old man's black doublet, and you will have some dim idea of this strange
personage, who seemed still more fantastic in the sombre twilight of the
staircase. One of Rembrandt's portraits might have stepped down from its
frame to walk in an appropriate atmosphere of gloom, such as the great
painter loved. The older man gave the younger a shrewd glance, and knocked
thrice at the door. It was opened by a man of forty or thereabout, who
seemed to be an invalid.
"Good day, Master."
Porbus bowed respectfully, and held the door open for the younger man to
enter, thinking that the latter accompanied his visitor; and when he saw
that the neophyte stood a while as if spellbound, feeling, as every
artist-nature must feel, the fascinating influence of the first sight of a
studio in which the material processes of art are revealed, Porbus
troubled himself no more about this second comer.
All the light in the studio came from a window in the roof, and was
concentrated upon an easel, where a canvas stood untouched as yet save for
three or four outlines in chalk. The daylight scarcely reached the remoter
angles and corners of the vast room; they were as dark as night, but the
silver ornamented breastplate of a Reiter's corselet, that hung upon the
wall, attracted a stray gleam to its dim abiding-place among the brown
shadows; or a shaft of light shot across the carved and glistening surface
of an antique sideboard covered with curious silver-plate, or struck out a
line of glittering dots among the raised threads of the golden warp of
some old brocaded curtains, where the lines of the stiff, heavy folds were
broken, as the stuff had been flung carelessly down to serve as a model.
Plaster écorchés stood about the room; and here and there, on
shelves and tables, lay fragments of classical sculpture-torsos of antique
goddesses, worn smooth as though all the years of the centuries that had
passed over them had been lovers' kisses. The walls were covered, from
floor to ceiling, with countless sketches in charcoal, red chalk, or pen
and ink. Amid the litter and confusion of color boxes, overturned stools,
flasks of oil, and essences, there was just room to move so as to reach
the illuminated circular space where the easel stood. The light from the
window in the roof fell full upon Por-bus's pale face and on the
ivory-tinted forehead of his strange visitor. But in another moment the
younger man heeded nothing but a picture that had already become famous
even in those stormy days of political and religious revolution, a picture
that a few of the zealous worshipers, who have so often kept the sacred
fire of art alive in evil days, were wont to go on pilgrimage to see. The
beautiful panel represented a Saint Mary of Egypt about to pay her passage
across the seas. It was a masterpiece destined for Mary de' Medici, who
sold it in later years of poverty.
"I like your saint," the old man remarked, addressing Porbus. "I would
give you ten golden crowns for her over and above the price the Queen is
paying; but as for putting a spoke in that wheel,—the devil take
"It is good then?"
"Hey! hey!" said the old man; "good, say you?—Yes and no. Your good
woman is not badly done, but she is not alive. You artists fancy that when
a figure is correctly drawn, and everything in its place according to the
rules of anatomy, there is nothing more to be done. You make up the flesh
tints beforehand on your palettes according to your formulae, and fill in
the outlines with due care that one side of the face shall be darker than
the other; and because you look from time to time at a naked woman who
stands on the platform before you, you fondly imagine that you have copied
nature, think yourselves to be painters, believe that you have wrested His
secret from God. Pshaw! You may know your syntax thoroughly and make no
blunders in your grammar, but it takes that and something more to make a
great poet. Look at your saint, Porbus! At a first glance she is
admirable; look at her again, and you see at once that she is glued to the
background, and that you could not walk round her. She is a silhouette
that turns but one side of her face to all beholders, a figure cut out of
canvas, an image with no power to move nor change her position. I feel as
if there were no air between that arm and the background, no space, no
sense of distance in your canvas. The perspective is perfectly correct,
the strength of the coloring is accurately diminished with the distance;
but, in spite of these praiseworthy efforts, I could never bring myself to
believe that the warm breath of life comes and goes in that beautiful
body. It seems to me that if I laid my hand on the firm, rounded throat,
it would be cold as marble to the touch. No, my friend, the blood does not
flow beneath that ivory skin, the tide of life does not flush those
delicate fibres, the purple veins that trace a network beneath the
transparent amber of her brow and breast. Here the pulse seems to beat,
there it is motionless, life and death are at strife in every detail; here
you see a woman, there a statue, there again a corpse. Your creation is
incomplete. You had only power to breathe a portion of your soul into your
beloved work. The fire of Prometheus died out again and again in your
hands; many a spot in your picture has not been touched by the divine
"But how is it, dear master?" Porbus asked respectfully, while the young
man with difficulty repressed his strong desire to beat the critic.
"Ah!" said the old man, "it is this! You have halted between two manners.
You have hesitated between drawing and color, between the dogged attention
to detail, the stiff precision of the German masters and the dazzling
glow, the joyous exuberance of Italian painters. You have set yourself to
imitate Hans Holbein and Titian, Albrecht Durer and Paul Veronese in a
single picture. A magnificent ambition truly, but what has come of it?
Your work has neither the severe charm of a dry execution nor the magical
illusion of Italian chiaroscuro. Titian's rich golden coloring
poured into Albrecht Dureras austere outlines has shattered them, like
molten bronze bursting through the mold that is not strong enough to hold
it. In other places the outlines have held firm, imprisoning and obscuring
the magnificent, glowing flood of Venetian color. The drawing of the face
is not perfect, the coloring is not perfect; traces of that unlucky
indecision are to be seen everywhere. Unless you felt strong enough to
fuse the two opposed manners in the fire of your own genius, you should
have cast in your lot boldly with the one or the other, and so have
obtained the unity which simulates one of the conditions of life itself.
Your work is only true in the centres; your outlines are false, they
project nothing, there is no hint of anything behind them. There is truth
here," said the old man, pointing to the breast of the Saint, "and again
here," he went on, indicating the rounded shoulder. "But there," once more
returning to the column of the throat, "everything is false. Let us go no
further into detail, you would be disheartened."
The old man sat down on a stool, and remained a while without speaking,
with his face buried in his hands.
"Yet I studied that throat from the life, dear master," Porbus began; "it
happens sometimes, for our misfortune, that real effects in nature look
improbable when transferred to canvas—"
"The aim of art is not to copy nature, but to express it. You are not a
servile copyist, but a poet!" cried the old man sharply, cutting Porbus
short with an imperious gesture. "Otherwise a sculptor might make a
plaster cast of a living woman and save himself all further trouble. Well,
try to make a cast of your mistress's hand, and set up the thing before
you. You will see a monstrosity, a dead mass, bearing no resemblance to
the living hand; you would be compelled to have recourse to the chisel of
a sculptor who, without making an exact copy, would represent for you its
movement and its life. We must detect the spirit, the informing soul in
the appearances of things and beings. Effects! What are effects but the
accidents of life, not life itself? A hand, since I have taken that
example, is not only a part of a body, it is the expression and extension
of a thought that must be grasped and rendered. Neither painter nor poet
nor sculptor may separate the effect from the cause, which are inevitably
contained the one in the other. There begins the real struggle! Many a
painter achieves success instinctively, unconscious of the task that is
set before art. You draw a woman, yet you do not see her! Not so do you
succeed in wresting Nature's secrets from her! You are reproducing
mechanically the model that you copied in your master's studio. You do not
penetrate far enough into the inmost secrets of the mystery of form; you
do not seek with love enough and perseverance enough after the form that
baffles and eludes you. Beauty is a thing severe and unapproachable, never
to be won by a languid lover. You must lie in wait for her coming and take
her unawares, press her hard and clasp her in a tight embrace, and force
her to yield. Form is a Proteus more intangible and more manifold than the
Proteus of the legend; compelled, only after long wrestling, to stand
forth manifest in his true aspect. Some of you are satisfied with the
first shape, or at most by the second or the third that appears. Not thus
wrestle the victors, the unvanquished painters who never suffer themselves
to be deluded by all those treacherous shadow-shapes; they persevere till
Nature at the last stands bare to their gaze, and her very soul is
"In this manner worked Rafael," said the old man, taking off his cap to
express his reverence for the King of Art. "His transcendent greatness
came of the intimate sense that, in him, seems as if it would shatter
external form. Form in his figures (as with us) is a symbol, a means of
communicating sensations, ideas, the vast imaginings of a poet. Every face
is a whole world. The subject of the portrait appeared for him bathed in
the light of a divine vision; it was revealed by an inner voice, the
finger of God laid bare the sources of expression in the past of a whole
"You clothe your women in fair raiment of flesh, in gracious veiling of
hair; but where is the blood, the source of passion and of calm, the cause
of the particular effect? Why, this brown Egyptian of yours, my good
Porbus, is a colorless creature! These figures that you set before us are
painted bloodless fantoms; and you call that painting, you call that art!
"Because you have made something more like a woman than a house, you think
that you have set your fingers on the goal; you are quite proud that you
need not to write currus venustus or pulcher homo beside
your figures, as early painters were wont to do and you fancy that you
have done wonders. Ah! my good friend, there is still something more to
learn, and you will use up a great deal of chalk and cover many a canvas
before you will learn it. Yes, truly, a woman carries her head in just
such a way, so she holds her garments gathered into her hand; her eyes
grow dreamy and soft with that expression of meek sweetness, and even so
the quivering shadow of the lashes hovers upon her cheeks. It is all
there, and yet it is not there. What is lacking? A nothing, but that
nothing is everything.
"There you have the semblance of life, but you do not express its fulness
and effluence, that indescribable something, perhaps the soul itself, that
envelopes the outlines of the body like a haze; that flower of life, in
short, that Titian and Rafael caught. Your utmost achievement hitherto has
only brought you to the starting-point. You might now perhaps begin to do
excellent work, but you grow weary all too soon; and the crowd admires,
and those who know smile.
"Oh, Mabuse! oh, my master!" cried the strange speaker, "thou art a thief!
Thou hast carried away the secret of life with thee!"
"Nevertheless," he began again, "this picture of yours is worth more than
all the paintings of that rascal Rubens, with his mountains of Flemish
flesh raddled with vermilion, his torrents of red hair, his riot of color.
You, at least have color there, and feeling and drawing—the three
essentials in art."
The young man roused himself from his deep musings.
"Why, my good man, the Saint is sublime!" he cried. "There is a subtlety
of imagination about those two figures, the Saint Mary and the Shipman,
that can not be found among Italian masters; I do not know a single one of
them capable of imagining the Shipman's hesitation."
"Did that little malapert come with you?" asked Porbus of the older man.
"Alas! master, pardon my boldness," cried the neophyte, and the color
mounted to his face. "I am unknown—a dauber by instinct, and but
lately come to this city—the fountain-head of all learning."
"Set to work," said Porbus, handing him a bit of red chalk and a sheet of
The new-comer quickly sketched the Saint Mary line for line.
"Aha!" exclaimed the old man. "Your name?" he added.
The young man wrote "Nicolas Poussin" below the sketch.
"Not bad that for a beginning," said the strange speaker, who had
discoursed so wildly. "I see that we can talk of art in your presence. I
do not blame you for admiring Porbus's saint. In the eyes of the world she
is a masterpiece, and those alone who have been initiated into the inmost
mysteries of art can discover her shortcomings. But it is worth while to
give you the lesson, for you are able to understand it, so I will show you
how little it needs to complete this picture. You must be all eyes, all
attention, for it may be that such a chance of learning will never come in
your way again—Porbus! your palette."
Porbus went in search of palette and brushes. The little old man turned
back his sleeves with impatient energy, seized the palette, covered with
many hues, that Porbus handed to him, and snatched rather than took a
handful of brushes of various sizes from the hands of his acquaintance.
His pointed beard suddenly bristled—a menacing movement that
expressed the prick of a lover's fancy. As he loaded his brush, he
muttered between his teeth, "These paints are only fit to fling out of the
window, together with the fellow who ground them, their crudeness and
falseness are disgusting! How can one paint with this?"
He dipped the tip of the brush with feverish eagerness in the different
pigments, making the circuit of the palette several times more quickly
than the organist of a cathedral sweeps the octaves on the keyboard of his
clavier for the "O Filii" at Easter.
Porbus and Poussin, on either side of the easel, stood stock-still,
watching with intense interest.
"Look, young man," he began again, "see how three or four strokes of the
brush and a thin glaze of blue let in the free air to play about the head
of the poor Saint, who must have felt stifled and oppressed by the close
atmosphere! See how the drapery begins to flutter; you feel that it is
lifted by the breeze! A moment ago it hung as heavily and stiffly as if it
were held out by pins. Do you see how the satin sheen that I have just
given to the breast rends the pliant, silken softness of a young girl's
skin, and how the brown-red, blended with burnt ochre, brings warmth into
the cold gray of the deep shadow where the blood lay congealed instead of
coursing through the veins? Young man, young man, no master could teach
you how to do this that I am doing before your eyes. Mabuse alone
possessed the secret of giving life to his figures; Mabuse had but one
pupil—that was I. I have had none, and I am old. You have sufficient
intelligence to imagine the rest from the glimpses that I am giving you."
While the old man was speaking, he gave a touch here and there; sometimes
two strokes of the brush, sometimes a single one; but every stroke told so
well, that the whole picture seemed transfigured—the painting was
flooded with light. He worked with such passionate fervor that beads of
sweat gathered upon his bare forehead; he worked so quickly, in brief,
impatient jerks, that it seemed to young Poussin as if some familiar
spirit inhabiting the body of this strange being took a grotesque pleasure
in making use of the man's hands against his own will. The unearthly
glitter of his eyes, the convulsive movements that seemed like struggles,
gave to this fancy a semblance of truth which could not but stir a young
imagination. The old man continued, saying as he did so—
"Paf! paf! that is how to lay it on, young man!—Little touches! come
and bring a glow into those icy cold tones for me! Just so! Pon! pon!
pon!" and those parts of the picture that he had pointed out as cold and
lifeless flushed with warmer hues, a few bold strokes of color brought all
the tones of the picture into the required harmony with the glowing tints
of the Egyptian, and the differences in temperament vanished.
"Look you, youngster, the last touches make the picture. Porbus has given
it a hundred strokes for every one of mine. No one thanks us for what lies
beneath. Bear that in mind."
At last the restless spirit stopped, and turning to Porbus and Poussin,
who were speechless with admiration, he spoke—
"This is not as good as my 'Belle Noiseuse'; still one might put one's
name to such a thing as this.—Yes, I would put my name to it," he
added, rising to reach for a mirror, in which he looked at the picture.—"And
now," he said, "will you both come and breakfast with me? I have a smoked
ham and some very fair wine!... Eh! eh! the times may be bad, but we can
still have some talk about art! We can talk like equals.... Here is a
little fellow who has aptitude," he added, laying a hand on Nicolas
In this way the stranger became aware of the threadbare condition of the
Norman's doublet. He drew a leather purse from his girdle, felt in it,
found two gold coins, and held them out.
"I will buy your sketch," he said.
"Take it," said Porbus, as he saw the other start and flush with
embarrassment, for Poussin had the pride of poverty. "Pray, take it; he
has a couple of king's ransoms in his pouch!"
The three came down together from the studio, and, talking of art by the
way, reached a picturesque wooden house hard by the Pont Saint-Michel.
Poussin wondered a moment at its ornament, at the knocker, at the frames
of the casements, at the scroll-work designs, and in the next he stood in
a vast low-ceiled room. A table, covered with tempting dishes, stood near
the blazing fire, and (luck unhoped for) he was in the company of two
great artists full of genial good humor.
"Do not look too long at that canvas, young man," said Porbus, when he saw
that Poussin was standing, struck with wonder, before a painting. "You
would fall a victim to despair."
It was the "Adam" painted by Mabuse to purchase his release from the
prison, where his creditors had so long kept him. And, as a matter of
fact, the figure stood out so boldly and convincingly, that Nicolas
Poussin began to understand the real meaning of the words poured out by
the old artist, who was himself looking at the picture with apparent
satisfaction, but without enthusiasm. "I have done better than that!" he
seemed to be saying to himself.
"There is life in it," he said aloud; "in that respect my poor master here
surpassed himself, but there is some lack of truth in the background. The
man lives indeed; he is rising, and will come toward us; but the
atmosphere, the sky, the air, the breath of the breeze—you look and
feel for them, but they are not there. And then the man himself is, after
all, only a man! Ah! but the one man in the world who came direct from the
hands of God must have had a something divine about him that is wanting
here. Mabuse himself would grind his teeth and say so when he was not
Poussin looked from the speaker to Porbus, and from Porbus to the speaker,
with restless curiosity. He went up to the latter to ask for the name of
their host; but the painter laid a finger on his lips with an air of
mystery. The young man's interest was excited; he kept silence, but hoped
that sooner or later some word might be let fall that would reveal the
name of his entertainer. It was evident that he was a man of talent and
very wealthy, for Porbus listened to him respectfully, and the vast room
was crowded with marvels of art.
A magnificent portrait of a woman, hung against the dark oak panels of the
wall, next caught Poussin's attention.
"What a glorious Giorgione!" he cried.
"No," said his host, "it is an early daub of mine—"
"Gramercy! I am in the abode of the god of painting, it seems!" cried
The old man smiled as if he had long grown familiar with such praise.
"Master Frenhofer!" said Porbus, "do you think you could spare me a little
of your capital Rhine wine?"
"A couple of pipes!" answered his host; "one to discharge a debt, for the
pleasure of seeing your pretty sinner, the other as a present from a
"Ah! if I had my health," returned Porbus, "and if you would but let me
see your 'Belle Noiseuse,' I would paint some great picture, with breadth
in it and depth; the figures should be life-size."
"Let you see my work!" cried the painter in agitation. "No, no! it is not
perfect yet; something still remains for me to do. Yesterday, in the
dusk," he said, "I thought I had reached the end. Her eyes seemed moist,
the flesh quivered, something stirred the tresses of her hair. She
breathed! But though I have succeeded in reproducing Nature's roundness
and relief on the flat surface of the canvas, this morning, by daylight, I
found out my mistake. Ah! to achieve that glorious result I have studied
the works of the great masters of color, stripping off coat after coat of
color from Titian's canvas, analyzing the pigments of the king of light.
Like that sovereign painter, I began the face in a slight tone with a
supple and fat paste—for shadow is but an accident; bear that in
mind, youngster!—Then I began afresh, and by half-tones and thin
glazes of color less and less transparent, I gradually deepened the tints
to the deepest black of the strongest shadows. An ordinary painter makes
his shadows something entirely different in nature from the high lights;
they are wood or brass, or what you will, anything but flesh in shadow.
You feel that even if those figures were to alter their position, those
shadow stains would never be cleansed away, those parts of the picture
would never glow with light.
"I have escaped one mistake, into which the most famous painters have
sometimes fallen; in my canvas the whiteness shines through the densest
and most persistent shadow. I have not marked out the limits of my figure
in hard, dry outlines, and brought every least anatomical detail into
prominence (like a host of dunces, who fancy that they can draw because
they can trace a line elaborately smooth and clean), for the human body is
not contained within the limits of line. In this the sculptor can approach
the truth more nearly than we painters. Nature's way is a complicated
succession of curve within curve. Strictly speaking, there is no such
thing as drawing.—Do not laugh, young man; strange as that speech
may seem to you, you will understand the truth in it some day.—A
line is a method of expressing the effect of light upon an object; but
there are no lines in Nature, everything is solid. We draw by modeling,
that is to say, that we disengage an object from its setting; the
distribution of the light alone gives to a body the appearance by which we
know it. So I have not defined the outlines; I have suffused them with a
haze of half-tints warm or golden, in such a sort that you can not lay
your finger on the exact spot where background and contours meet. Seen
from near, the picture looks a blur; it seems to lack definition; but step
back two paces, and the whole thing becomes clear, distinct, and solid;
the body stands out; the rounded form comes into relief; you feel that the
air plays round it. And yet—I am not satisfied; I have misgivings.
Perhaps one ought not to draw a single line; perhaps it would be better to
attack the face from the centre, taking the highest prominences first,
proceeding from them through the whole range of shadows to the heaviest of
all. Is not this the method of the sun, the divine painter of the world?
Oh, Nature, Nature! who has surprised thee, fugitive? But, after all, too
much knowledge, like ignorance, brings you to a negation. I have doubts
about my work."
There was a pause. Then the old man spoke again. "I have been at work upon
it for ten years, young man; but what are ten short years in a struggle
with Nature? Do we know how long Sir Pygmalion wrought at the one statue
that came to life?" The old man fell into deep musings, and gazed before
him with unseeing eyes, while he played unheedingly with his knife.
"Look, he is in conversation with his domon!" murmured Porbus.
At the word, Nicolas Poussin felt himself carried away by an unaccountable
accession of artist's curiosity. For him the old man, at once intent and
inert, the seer with the unseeing eyes, became something more than a man—a
fantastic spirit living in a mysterious world, and countless vague
thoughts awoke within his soul. The effect of this species of fascination
upon his mind can no more be described in words than the passionate
longing awakened in an exile's heart by the song that recalls his home. He
thought of the scorn that the old man affected to display for the noblest
efforts of art, of his wealth, his manners, of the deference paid to him
by Porbus. The mysterious picture, the work of patience on which he had
wrought so long in secret, was doubtless a work of genius, for the head of
the Virgin which young Poussin had admired so frankly was beautiful even
beside Mabuse's "Adam"—there was no mistaking the imperial manner of
one of the princes of art. Everything combined to set the old man beyond
the limits of human nature.
Out of the wealth of fancies in Nicolas Poussin's brain an idea grew, and
gathered shape and clearness. He saw in this supernatural being a complete
type of the artist nature, a nature mocking and kindly, barren and
prolific, an erratic spirit intrusted with great and manifold powers which
she too often abuses, leading sober reason, the Philistine, and sometimes
even the amateur forth into a stony wilderness where they see nothing; but
the white-winged maiden herself, wild as her fancies may be, finds epics
there and castles and works of art. For Poussin, the enthusiast, the old
man, was suddenly transfigured, and became Art incarnate, Art with its
mysteries, its vehement passion and its dreams.
"Yes, my dear Porbus," Frenhofer continued, "hitherto I have never found a
flawless model, a body with outlines of perfect beauty, the carnations—Ah!
where does she live?" he cried, breaking in upon himself, "the
undiscoverable Venus of the older time, for whom we have sought so often,
only to find the scattered gleams of her beauty here and there? Oh! to
behold once and for one moment, Nature grown perfect and divine, the Ideal
at last, I would give all that I possess.... Nay, Beauty divine, I would
go to seek thee in the dim land of the dead; like Orpheus, I would go down
into the Hades of Art to bring back the life of art from among the shadows
"We can go now," said Porbus to Poussin. "He neither hears nor sees us any
"Let us go to his studio," said young Poussin, wondering greatly.
"Oh! the old fox takes care that no one shall enter it. His treasures are
so carefully guarded that it is impossible for us to come at them. I have
not waited for your suggestion and your fancy to attempt to lay hands on
this mystery by force."
"So there is a mystery?" "Yes," answered Porbus. "Old Frenhofer is the
only pupil Mabuse would take. Frenhofer became the painter's friend,
deliverer, and father; he sacrificed the greater part of his fortune to
enable Mabuse to indulge in riotous extravagance, and in return Mabuse
bequeathed to him the secret of relief, the power of giving to his figures
the wonderful life, the flower of Nature, the eternal despair of art, the
secret which Ma-buse knew so well that one day when he had sold the
flowered brocade suit in which he should have appeared at the Entry of
Charles V, he accompanied his master in a suit of paper painted to
resemble the brocade. The peculiar richness and splendor of the stuff
struck the Emperor; he complimented the old drunkard's patron on the
artist's appearance, and so the trick was brought to light. Frenhofer is a
passionate enthusiast, who sees above and beyond other painters. He has
meditated profoundly on color, and the absolute truth of line; but by the
way of much research he has come to doubt the very existence of the
objects of his search. He says, in moments of despondency, that there is
no such thing as drawing, and that by means of lines we can only reproduce
geometrical figures; but that is overshooting the mark, for by outline and
shadow you can reproduce form without any color at all, which shows that
our art, like Nature, is composed of an infinite number of elements.
Drawing gives you the skeleton, the anatomical frame-' work, and color
puts the life into it; but life without the skeleton is even more
incomplete than a skeleton without life. But there is something else truer
still, and it is this—f or painters, practise and observation are
everything; and when theories and poetical ideas begin to quarrel with the
brushes, the end is doubt, as has happened with our good friend, who is
half crack-brained enthusiast, half painter. A sublime painter! but
unlucky for him, he was born to riches, and so he has leisure to follow
his fancies. Do not you follow his example! Work! painters have no
business to think, except brush in hand."
"We will find a way into his studio!" cried Poussin confidently. He had
ceased to heed Porbus's remarks. The other smiled at the young painter's
enthusiasm, asked him to come to see him again, and they parted. Nicolas
Poussin went slowly back to the Rue de la Harpe, and passed the modest
hostelry where he was lodging without noticing it. A feeling of uneasiness
prompted him to hurry up the crazy staircase till he reached a room at the
top, a quaint, airy recess under the steep, high-pitched roof common among
houses in old Paris. In the one dingy window of the place sat a young
girl, who sprang up at once when she heard some one at the door; it was
the prompting of love; she had recognized the painter's touch on the
"What is the matter with you?" she asked.
"The matter is... is... Oh! I have felt that I am a painter! Until to-day
I have had doubts, but now I believe in myself! There is the making of a
great man in me! Never mind, Gillette, we shall be rich and happy! There
is gold at the tips of those brushes—"
He broke off suddenly. The joy faded from his powerful and earnest face as
he compared his vast hopes with his slender resources. The walls were
covered with sketches in chalk on sheets of common paper. There were but
four canvases in the room. Colors were very costly, and the young
painter's palette was almost bare. Yet in the midst of his poverty he
possessed and was conscious of the possession of inexhaustible treasures
of the heart, of a devouring genius equal to all the tasks that lay before
He had been brought to Paris by a nobleman among his friends, or perchance
by the consciousness of his powers; and in Paris he had found a mistress,
one of those noble and generous souls who choose to suffer by a great
man's side, who share his struggles and strive to understand his fancies,
accepting their lot of poverty and love as bravely and dauntlessly as
other women will set themselves to bear the burden of riches and make a
parade of their insensibility. The smile that stole over Gillette's lips
filled the garret with golden light, and rivaled the brightness of the sun
in heaven. The sun, moreover, does not always shine in heaven, whereas
Gillette was always in the garret, absorbed in her passion, occupied by
Poussin's happiness and sorrow, consoling the genius which found an outlet
in love before art engrossed it.
"Listen, Gillette. Come here."
The girl obeyed joyously, and sprang upon the painter's knee. Hers was
perfect grace and beauty, and the loveliness of spring; she was adorned
with all luxuriant fairness of outward form, lighted up by the glow of a
fair soul within.
"Oh! God," he cried; "I shall never dare to tell her—"
"A secret?" she cried; "I must know it!"
Poussin was absorbed in his dreams.
"Do tell it me!"
"Gillette... poor beloved heart!..."
"Oh! do you want something of me?"
"If you wish me to sit once more for you as I did the other day," she
continued with playful petulance, "I will never consent to do such a thing
again, for your eyes say nothing all the while. You do not think of me at
all, and yet you look at me—"
"Would you rather have me draw another woman?"
"Perhaps—if she were very ugly," she said.
"Well," said Poussin gravely, "and if, for the sake of my fame to come, if
to make me a great painter, you must sit to some one else?"
"You may try me," she said; "you know quite well that I would not."
Poussin's head sank on her breast; he seemed to be overpowered by some
intolerable joy or sorrow.
"Listen," she cried, plucking at the sleeve of Poussin's threadbare
doublet, "I told you, Nick, that I would lay down my life for you; but I
never promised you that I in my lifetime would lay down my love."
"Your love?" cried the young artist.
"If I showed myself thus to another, you would love me no longer, and I
should feel myself unworthy of you. Obedience to your fancies was a
natural and simple thing, was it not? Even against my own will, I am glad
and even proud to do thy dear will. But for another, out upon it!"
"Forgive me, my Gillette," said the painter, falling upon his knees; "I
would rather be beloved than famous. You are fairer than success and
honors. There, fling the pencils away, and burn these sketches! I have
made a mistake. I was meant to love and not to paint. Perish art and all
Gillette looked admiringly at him, in an ecstasy of happiness! She was
triumphant; she felt instinctively that art was laid aside for her sake,
and flung like a grain of incense at her feet.
"Yet he is only an old man," Poussin continued; "for him you would be a
woman, and nothing more. You—so perfect!"
"I must love you indeed!" she cried, ready to sacrifice even love's
scruples to the lover who had given up so much for her sake; "but I should
bring about my own ruin. Ah! to ruin myself, to lose everything for
you!... It is a very glorious thought! Ah! but you will forget me. Oh I
what evil thought is this that has come to you?"
"I love you, and yet I thought of it," he said, with something like
remorse, "Am I so base a wretch?"
"Let us consult Père Hardouin," she said.
"No, no! Let it be a secret between us."
"Very well; I will do it. But you must not be there," she said. "Stay at
the door with your dagger in your hand; and if I call, rush in and kill
Poussin forgot everything but art. He held Gillette tightly in his arms.
"He loves me no longer!" thought Gillette when she was alone. She repented
of her resolution already.
But to these misgivings there soon succeeded a sharper pain, and she
strove to banish a hideous thought that arose in her own heart. It seemed
to her that her own love had grown less already, with a vague suspicion
that the painter had fallen somewhat in her eyes.
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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.