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Romantic Originals

La Comédie humaine

by Honoré de Balzac, published under the direction of Pierre-Georges Castex
Gallimard, Editions de la Pléiade, 12 volumes pp., fr2, 878 for the set

Lord Byron: The Complete Poetical Works

edited by Jerome J. McGann
Oxford University Pess (Clarendon Press), 5 volumes, published to date pp., $565 for the set

The Cornell Wordsworth

edited by Stephen M. Parrish
Cornell University Press, 12 volumes published to date pp., $780 for the set

William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism

An exhibition at the New York Public Library through January 2, 1988

William Wordsworth and the Age of English Romanticism

Catalog of the exhibition by Jonathan Wordsworth, by Michael C. Jaye, by Robert Woof
Rutgers University Press, 261 pp., $29.95 (paper)


It is a convenient and pleasing Romantic myth that the true work of art springs full-blown from the unconscious mind. Revision comes from the conscious intellect or will, and this, as Wordsworth wrote, “is the very littleness of life,…relapses from the one interior life that lives in all things.”1 Some years ago, a novelist—Muriel Spark, I believe—was asked how she was able to write so many books in such a short space of time. She replied, “I write very fast and I never correct.” This is the ideal. Few writers are so fortunate. Most revise and, as they do so, create more problems than they resolve.

One of Balzac’s most interesting tales, Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), deals imaginatively and succinctly with revision. It was a subject close to the author’s heart: his books generally went through several versions before and after publication. However, no work of his was more completely or profoundly rewritten than Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu.

The scene is laid in Paris in 1612, and the central figure is an invention of Balzac’s, a demonic personality who might have stepped out of the fantastic tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann: the old Frenhofer, the greatest painter of the age (all of Balzac’s important characters possess their qualities in the superlative degree, and no moderately talented artist could play a significant role in his work—even Wenceslas Steinbock in La Cousine Bette, when he loses his talent, becomes obsessively and spectacularly incapable and the hopelessly mediocre Pierre Grassou sees his work sold under the names of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian, becomes the favorite painter of the bourgeoisie, and enters the Academy). The two other painters in the tale are historical: the young Nicholas Poussin, just starting out as an artist, visits the atelier of the already established Franz Porbus, and meets Frenhofer there. For ten years Frenhofer has been working on one painting, a life-size portrait of a nude woman lying on a velvet couch—“but what are ten years,” he says, “when it is a question of wrestling with Nature? We do not know how long it took Lord Pygmalion to make the only statue that walked.”

Frenhofer will show no one the picture: to finish it, he says, he needs a model of absolutely perfect beauty. Poussin has such a mistress, the young and modest Gillette, who adores him. He persuades her with difficulty to pose in the nude for Frenhofer, who will in return allow him to view the unknown masterpiece. Alone in his studio with Gillette, Frenhofer compares his painting to the living form of the girl, and decides that it is finished, more beautiful than reality.

He lets Poussin and Porbus into the studio and places them before the work: they see only a

confused mass of colors contained within a multitude of bizarre lines that make up a wall of paint…. Moving closer, they saw, in one corner of the canvas, a naked foot that came out of this chaos of colors, tones, indecisive nuances, a sort of fog without form; but a delightful foot, a living foot. They stood petrified with admiration before this fragment that had escaped from an incredible, long and progressive destruction…. “There is a woman underneath,” cried Porbus, pointing out to Poussin the finesse of the superposition of colors with which the old painter had successively charged all the parts of his figure in trying to make it perfect…. “There,” said Porbus, touching the canvas, “ends our art on earth.”

Lost in admiration of his own work, Frenhofer does not comprehend that his ten years of revision have destroyed his painting, and Poussin loses his mistress, for Gillette cannot forgive his having sacrificed her deeply felt modesty simply to see a picture.

This moral tale of the terrifying effects of revision underwent wholesale revision after its 1831 printing in a periodical, L’Artiste, and its reappearance with some corrections in book form the same year. Six years later, in 1837, Balzac republished it, considerably enlarged and with a different ending as part of the seventeenth volume of his Etudes philosophiques. In this version, definitive except for some retouching in Balzac’s own copy of La Comédie humaine, the old painter, observing the reaction of his fellow artists, realizes the disaster, and throws the two younger painters out in a blind rage. That night he burns all his pictures and dies mysteriously.

The additions of 1837 are largely discussions of the theory of painting, in which Balzac ascribes to his seventeenth-century artists the ideas current in the 1830s: the supremacy of the colorist over the draftsman, for example. The anachronism is compounded in the reader’s mind by the development of art since Balzac’s day, by the suspicion that Frenhofer’s superposition of colors, his multitude of bizarre lines, his chaos of tones and indecisive nuances, might be found more sympathetic today than the banal life-size nude on a velvet couch. It is more significant, however, that the isolated foot that comes out of this chaos would have had a charm already in Balzac’s time precisely because it is a fragment, and Balzac’s description brings out this charm magnificently:

This foot appeared there like the torso of some Venus in Parian marble risen from the debris of a city destroyed by fire.

Perhaps the most extraordinary textual change made in 1837 is an apparently small one. Frenhofer’s refusal to display his picture to anyone else is a parallel to Gillette’s reluctance to pose in the nude for anyone except her lover. Before yielding he expresses his resistance with passion:

The work I keep under lock and key is an exception in our art; it is not a canvas, it’s a woman! a woman with whom I weep, I laugh, I talk and think. Do you want me to abandon ten years’ happiness as one takes off a coat? To cease in a single moment, being father, lover and God? This woman is not a creation, but a creature.

This is the version of 1831. In 1837 the final sentence was altered:

This woman is not a creature, but a creation.

It is wonderful to be able to reverse the terms in this way, and the sentence still makes sense with no change of context. It is clear that for this to happen, the meaning of the words have shifted but then, as Lichtenberg once wrote, whoever decreed that a word must have a fixed meaning?

Placed so near to “creation” in both versions “creative” means not only a living being but one created, and Frenhofer’s admission that he enjoyed playing God brings us to the first woman, Eve. A “creature” implies a living being, and “creation” only something made. What is imposed by the contrast is woman against portrait, the experience of life against the object. The two are fused ambiguously in both versions of this passage, but their opposition is the theme of The Unknown Masterpiece. Poussin loses his mistress for the sake of the portrait; Frenhofer has made his portrait the substitute for a woman, and his ten years of happiness destroy his work.

The two versions can act only as a paradox—or different paradoxes. To make sense of both, the meaning of “this woman” must shift. In “not a creation, but a creature,” we have “this portrait of a woman is alive”; in “not a creature, but a creation,” it changes to “this woman is something I have made.” What is disconcerting about the revision is the alteration of values. In the 1831 version, the living being takes precedence over the made object. By 1837 Balzac’s hubris has increased, and the work of art is nobler than the woman. (This change has its source in Balzac’s own temperament: after consoling a friend for the death of his mother, Balzac is said to have continued, “And now let us talk about something important: should I make the heroine of my new novel get married?”)

The change from 1831 to 1837 is, when you come to think of it, a parallel to the story. Both Frenhofer and Poussin allow the work of art to take precedence over the living being: Eve becomes not a creature, but a thing; the work becomes a fetish. The variant of 1837 reveals a moral deterioration of the author that reflects the tale, as if Balzac were corrupted by his subject (it is significant that the earlier version is not only more humane but more directly effective, the later version more subtly insidious).

Another variant reveals the same process. Poussin endeavors to persuade Gillette to pose nude for Frenhofer, and assures that her modesty will not be violated. In the periodical version, he says:

Il ne verra pas la femme en toi, il verra la beauté: tu es parfaite! (He will not see the woman in you, he will see beauty: you are perfect.)

In the first edition in book form a month later, we find:

Il ne pourra voir que la femme en toi. Tu es si parfaite! (He will only be able to see the woman in you. You are so perfect.)

In the first version “woman” is physical, sexual, and vulnerable: the woman in Gillette will be protected from the gaze of Frenhofer. In the second, woman has become a concept, abstract and general. This suggests the way revision in Romantic art moves away from direct experience to a mediated reflection.

In the case of The Unknown Masterpiece, however, there is no point in judging one version superior to the other. It is clear that a perception of the richness of meaning in these passages depends on a comparison of the different states of the text—the meanings may be implicit in each individual version, but they are more easily revealed when one version is superimposed over the other. In this sense, Frenhofer’s “masterpiece” is less an allegory of the dangers of revision than an image of a critical edition with all the variant readings displayed to the reader—above all when we reflect that we would probably have preferred the magical appearance of Frenhofer’s disaster to the more banal work he thought he had painted and that Porbus and Poussin all too reasonably expected to see.

Balzac’s description of the picture does not correspond to the ordinary process of revision, in which the difficulties are smoothed away and the original awkwardness covered over. In the chaos of colors, tones, and decisive nuances we seem to see all of the different versions superimposed. The different variant states of The Unknown Masterpiece constitute a more profound and original work than any individually published text.


It is an odd and even somewhat perverse experience to read a novel or a poem in what is called a critical edition—that is, an edition which lays out all the stages that the work went through from manuscript through the successive editions, and exhibits all the variants. Out attention is constantly and abruptly halted in mid-progress to consider the change of a comma to a semicolon, the addition of a paragraph, the excision of a phrase. The reader has the illusion of sitting in the seat of the author: he can inspect, and choose between, alternatives; regret lost opportunities, evaluate each improvement. At every step, he is distracted from the text by another text.

  1. 1

    The Prelude, 1798–1799, Stephen Parrish, ed. (Cornell University Press, 1977), p. 165.

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