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The Hidden Masterpiece

First published in 1831, Honore de Balzac’s The Hidden Masterpiece, or Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, is a short story that deals with the theme of artistic creativity and appreciation. It has influenced a variety of literary men and artists including the American novelist Henry James and the renowned painter Pablo Picasso. The latter’s magnum opus, Guernica, is believed to be inspired from Balzac’s tale. Set in the beginning of the seventeenth century, the story tells of Nicholas Poussin, an art apprentice who decides to visit a famous Parisian painter named Porbus to learn from him. When he reaches his workshop, he finds him with his own master, an aged man named Frenhofer. The tale involves the artists in discussions on the craft of painting reality and bringing life to art. Like the mythological characters of Frankenstein and Pygmalion, Frenhofer defies God by playing his role when he dares create life and materialize Mary of Egypt on one of his canvases. However, the story ends tragically when Frenhofer disappoints his two admirers with the absurdity of his last painting. The feeling of failure and despair push Frenhofer to commit suicide.
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