The following text is an adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece”, initially published in 1831, and containing one of the earliest known literary descriptions of an abstract painting. The characters reverberated strongly with Paul Cézanne, Willem de Kooning and Pablo Picasso, who subsequently illustrated a re-issue of Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnuas it was originally titled in French.
The story takes place in 17th century Paris at an artist’s studio on the Rue des Grands Augustins. Here we first encounter a young Nicolas Poussin sneaking into court painter Porbus’ atelier. Little does he know that this very day a visit is scheduled with Master Frenhofer, the recluse considered by many to be the greatest living painter in France. As the drama unfolds, Frenhofer explains that he is near completion of his masterpiece, but requires a model with whom to compare his portrait. Will Poussin convince his mistress to pose nude for the old man?
It is worth noting that Picasso later rented the flat at No. 7 Rue des Grands Augestins, the same address of the studio mentioned in the story, and where he painted his own masterpiece, Guernica, exactly one hundred years after the final version of Balzac’s tale had been published.
Extract from the book's Introduction
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Cover Art Work by George Condo