Finalist in Narrative magazine’s Fall 2020 short story competition.
Soon after arriving in Paris in 1612, the eighteen year-old Nicolas Poussin visits the studio of the renowned artist Frans Pourbus the Younger. There he meets a mysterious old painter called Frenhofer who claims to have been the sole pupil of the Flemish master, Jan Mabuse. Frenhofer gives the two artists a profound lecture on art and the creative process as he brilliantly reworks Pourbus’s painting, Mary of Egypt. Frenhofer also tells them about a painting of his mistress, Catherine Lescault, a woman of incomparable beauty, that he has been working on for ten years. Pourbus tells Frenhofer that Poussin would be willing to let him use his beautiful young model, Gillette, in return for letting them see the painting of Lescault. Gillette unwillingly agrees to participate in this arrangement to prove her love for Poussin. A few months later this transaction takes place, and after spending a few minutes behind closed doors with Gillette, Frenhofer allows Poussin and Pourbus to see his masterpiece. All they find is a canvas covered with an incoherent jumble of colors—the only discernable feature being a perfectly drawn foot in one corner of the canvas. After a heated exchange over the painting, Frenhofer tells Poussin and Pourbus to leave his studio. During the argument between the three men, Gillette slips away. When Pourbus returns to Frenhofer’s studio the next day he learns that Frenhofer has burned all his paintings that night and died in the process.
That is where the story, as told by Balzac in “The Unknown Masterpiece”, ends. But many questions remain: what was the significance of the perfectly drawn foot, what happened to Gillette, who was Catherine Lescault and, above all, who was Frenhofer? Fortunately, some recently discovered papers of Nicolas Poussin answer these questions.
I, Nicolas Poussin, wish to record for the sake of posterity certain events that occurred in my youth and the remarkable consequences thereof that I experienced many years later. The critical events in question concerned my meeting with the mad genius Frenhofer in the studio of Frans Pourbus the Younger in the year 1612. While the immediate drama that followed is probably known to many readers of these pages, it is what happened thereafter that I wish to record here.
After Frenhofer had thrown Master Pourbus and me out of his studio I went back to my lodgings on Rue de la Harpe in search of Gillette. I stayed up the whole night hoping she would come to me, but she did not. The next day I went to Master Pourbus’s studio on the Rue des Grands-Augustins to see if he had any news of her, thinking that she might have sought refuge with him. It was then that I learned the shocking news of Frenhofer’s death in a fire that he himself had set to destroy all his paintings. Nothing of his work or his other treasures had survived the blaze.
I spent the next few days searching all over Paris for Gillette. I was assisted in this endeavor by her cousin, an apprentice in the workshop of Monsieur Freminet. Like me, the young man had heard reports that Catherine Lescault had made a hasty departure from Paris due to an incident involving a nobleman. But of Gillette he was as ignorant as me. We came to the somber conclusion that she had been the victim of some hideous crime and her corpse disposed of in the Seine.
I was inconsolable and was sure that I was the one ultimately responsible for Gillette’s death. Over the next few weeks I hid in my room and grieved over the loss of my beautiful Gillette and obsessed over Frenhofer, Catherine Lescault, and Frenhofer’s incomprehensible portrait of her. I was sure Catherine had information that could cast some light on the whole affair, but she had left Paris for some unknown destination. Some speculated she had gone to England. I also obsessed about that perfectly drawn foot on Frenhofer’s canvas. What did it mean? What was its significance? Did it encode some secret message? But, of course, the canvas no longer existed and no further investigation on that topic was possible. I went back to see Master Pourbus. His manner seemed distant. He told me he was unwell, greatly upset by the loss of his friend, and that he needed to be left in peace—a wish I could certainly understand. While I was in his studio I noticed that Mary of Egypt was missing. Master Pourbus told me that, for him, the painting was more Frenhofer’s than his and he felt it only fitting to destroy it. That, too, I could understand.
The whole episode had come to a dead end. Frenhofer was dead, Gillette was dead, and Catherine Lescault had vanished without a trace. Paris, being the city that it is, was soon consumed by other scandals and for most people l’affaire Frenhofer was soon forgotten.
However, a few months later, I had a remarkable encounter with an elderly gentleman who had studied the lives of the old Flemish masters. He had in his possession a remarkable tome, The Schilder-boeck, a collection of artists’ biographies written by the Flemish painter and historian, Karel van Mander. At the time, I was poorly educated in the history of art and welcomed the opportunity to talk to a scholar about Mabuse and his students. He patiently translated into French the biographies of Mabuse and certain other painters, such as Lucas van Leyden and Jan van Scorel, with whom Mabuse had associated. Those biographies revealed that Mabuse, despite his fame as an artist, was a most dissolute fellow. But more importantly, there was no record of him ever having had any students. In addition, van Mander could not identify with any certainty the years of either Mabuse’s birth or death. I asked the old scholar if he would care to give an estimate of those dates. Based on the events described in the biographies we had just read he estimated that Mabuse had been born in the early or mid 1470’s, and died in the early 1530’s. Given that it was now 1612, this meant that Mabuse had been born the best part of 140 years ago. I then had a stunning realization. The way Frenhofer had told me and Master Pourbus about his time with Mabuse—the way he had bailed him out of drunken brawls and his participation in various events that were described in those biographies—implied that he, Frenhofer, was already a mature adult when he claimed to have been Mabuse’s student. At most he was probably twenty years younger than Mabuse. But that was impossible! It would make Frenhofer approximately 120 years old! And nobody had ever lived to that age except, if one believed the Bible, Moses. And even if Frenhofer had been thirty years younger than Mabuse, he would still be impossibly old. It was now clear that Frenhofer, genius that he might have been, was a fraud. And given the way that Master Pourbus had supported his tales made me suspect that he, too, was part of that deception. I said nothing of this to the old gentleman and thanked him for his help. I then asked him to pose for me briefly and drew his portrait. Much to his delight I gave it to him as a token of my respect for his scholarship.
I immediately went to Master Pourbus’s studio, full of questions and no little anger. Pourbus refused to see me and shouted through his closed door that he could tell me nothing, and that he never wanted to see me again. I was greatly hurt by his rejection. Indeed, I had even hoped at one point that he might have taken me on as his student.
It was the shock of that sudden rejection that finally closed the Frenhofer affair for me. I went on with my life, found other teachers, including Elle and Lallemand, and worked hard to improve my skills as a painter. Those early years in Paris were difficult. I think I can say that the highlight of that period was my friendship with Philippe de Champaigne who helped me find employment working alongside him decorating the Luxembourg Palace under the direction of Nicolas Duchesne. Philippe was the only person to whom I confided all the details of those dramatic events of 1612.
In 1624 I moved to Rome, and thanks to the patronage of Cardinal Barberini and Cavaliere Cassiano dal Pozzo—who became a dear friend—I was able to establish myself as an artist of some distinction. But all that is known and recorded elsewhere. And as for Frenhofer, Gillette, and Catherine Lescault, they were all forgotten, as was Master Pourbus who had died in 1622. I did not attend his funeral.
One day in October of 1640, Cassiano visited me in my studio. He told me that a certain Count S., a Portuguese nobleman residing in Rome, had requested a meeting with me. The Count was a connoisseur of the arts with a very fine private collection, and a man reputed to be of great wealth. The meeting was held at the Count’s sumptuously furnished residence on Strada Giulia. He was most cordial and expressed admiration for my work in the most generous terms. He then proceeded to show me his private collection that included rare drawings by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, etchings by Durer, paintings by Raphael and Botticelli, a panel by Fra Angelico, and a number of paintings by Flemish masters. The Count’s discussion of these works confirmed his reputation for artistic taste and knowledge of the highest order. He then said that there was a particular matter he wished to discuss with me. I had assumed he was going to offer me a commission so I was greatly surprised when he asked me if I had known the artist Frans Pourbus the Younger during my early years in Paris. Up until that moment, I had all but forgotten about him. The only person who knew about my relationship with Pourbus was my dear friend Philippe de Champaigne, and I knew he would never have betrayed my confidences.
Not wishing to disappoint my gracious host, I merely said that I had met Master Pourbus on only a few occasions but would be happy to share with him what I knew of his paintings based on his work as Marie de Medici’s court painter. I had a feeling that the count detected some evasion in my answer but, nonetheless, he continued to address me in the most gracious terms and invited me to view his most recent acquisition. We proceeded to a small, unfurnished room. In its center stood a draped easel. The Count removed the drape revealing Pourbus’s painting, Mary of Egypt, as transformed by Frenhofer.
Seeing that painting after so many years brought back a flood of memories of that life-changing day in Pourbus’s studio when I had first met Frenhofer. I recalled the magical way in which Frenhofer had transformed Pourbus’s painting into a sublime masterpiece while, at the same time, giving us his brilliant lecture on painting and the meaning of art—a lecture that deeply influenced my subsequent artistic development. But more than that, I recalled my beautiful Gillette whose love I had lost as a result of my association with Frenhofer.
Although my immediate instinct was to run out of the room and away from that diabolical picture, I could not insult my host by doing so. I took control of myself and gave my opinion of the painting. I felt it prudent to proceed cautiously and began by talking in general terms about the Flemish school of painting that Pourbus would have studied in the workshop of his grandfather, Pieter Pourbus. I discussed the work of the Flemish master, Mabuse, who had shown how to impart a degree of Italianate elegance and sculptural solidity to his figures. I ventured the opinion that despite Mabuse’s influence on the painting of his fellow countrymen his figures tended to be stiff and wooden, and lacked the physical grace and anatomical accuracy that artists of our time had achieved. I was gratified to see that the Count agreed with my assessment.
I then went on to state, however, that the painting we were viewing had transcended those limitations and was far superior to any of Pourbus’s other works that I was familiar with. As I went into the details of the picture, I felt as though Frenhofer himself had somehow taken control of me, and it was he who was now speaking through me in his own words. I stated that the figure of Mary had a living presence that made one feel one could walk around her. By contrast, so many of Pourbus’s figures in his other paintings looked as though they had been glued to the canvas. This comment caused the Count to chuckle and nod his head in agreement. I then analyzed the way in which Mary’s bosom had been painted: how the choice of colors and play of light gave one the feeling that blood was coursing through her breasts—an effect that was lacking in Pourbus’s other paintings where, at best, breasts were as cold as marble, if not as dead as wood. The Count, clearly as much of a connoisseur of women as of painting, smiled knowingly at these observations. I then proceeded to discuss the composition as a whole, and echoing much of what I had learned from Frenhofer argued that the artist had achieved a perfect balance between disegno and color, and had imbued the whole composition with the sense of a living event. This was so different from the majority of Pourbus’s other paintings—and those of many other artists of his ilk—where the scenes had the static quality of a theatrical tableau, albeit embellished with elaborate details of costume and jewelry. With sufficient technical training there was no shortage of artists who could depict a scene with some accuracy, but it took a true artist to express that scene—something Pourbus had managed to achieve in this painting. As to whether the painting was an authentic creation of the artist, I ventured the opinion that it was, even though I knew, in truth, that it was not. However, to tell the truth would have revealed dark secrets that would have triggered an avalanche of gossip and scandal mongering—a pursuit beloved by our idle patrons and fiercely jealous brotherhood of artists.
To justify my statement, false as it was, I felt it necessary to hold forth on the role of inspiration in the life of the artist. The exceptional brilliance of Pourbus’s painting compared to his other works might, indeed, lead one to doubt its authenticity or, if nothing else, to ask why this particular work transcended his others. I stated that all artists, even those of the greatest distinction at the height of their artistic maturity and creativity, are not always able to maintain an output of uniform quality. Something, I confessed, that was true of my own work. Simply put, we will produce, from time to time and for various reasons, a work that is superior to our other paintings. And the reasons for that are manifold. The inspiring force could be as varied as the embrace of a new lover or the tragic loss of an old one; that is, some singular emotional perturbation that drives the muse within us to new heights. I could only conclude that Pourbus had experienced some unusual event that had affected him in a way that resulted in this brilliant unknown masterpiece of his.
Although exhausted by my lengthy discourse I was gratified by the Count’s expressions of genuine appreciation for it. He said he agreed with my conclusion about the painting’s authenticity and that its excellence had been driven by some extraordinary event in the life of the artist at the time of its creation. This being so he had now decided to show it only to visitors of the most refined taste and superior artistic scholarship.
Our meeting ended on the most cordial terms and the Count expressed a desire to visit my studio and to continue our discussion of art and the creative process. However, as he escorted me to his door we had a brief exchange of such shattering import that I feel compelled to record it exactly as it occurred. Just as I was leaving, I said,
“My dear Count, might I be permitted to ask from whom you purchased the painting?”
“Of course,” he said, “the purchase was a story in itself.”
“How so?” I asked.
“The seller was a lady. Although past her bloom of youth she possessed the most refined and mature beauty, the like of which I have rarely seen. Indeed, she had a face worthy of a portrait by a great master such as yourself.”
“And what was her name, may I ask?”
“She said her name was Catherine Lescault…”
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