The Unknown Masterpiece, by Honoré de Balzac, Rampant Lions Press (1997)

Honoré de Balzac‘s classic short story The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu), first published in 1831, is an interesting and thoughtful contemplation on art. An old painter named Frenhofer has mastered the techniques of the day, yet struggles to complete his own masterpiece which he has kept hidden from all other eyes. When a young artist (Poussin) offers his lover (Gillette) as a model, Frenhofer quickly completes his work. Poussin and another painter (Porbus) are shocked when they see nothing but a swirl of colors and a bit of what seems to be a foot.  As  Sebestain Carter states in his publisher’s note, The Unknown Masterpiece has come to be seen “as a classic statement of the unattainability of perfection in art, and indeed of the way an artist’s striving towards an ideal of perfection can itself be destructive of the work.” Mr. Carter also points out:

…the story is also a remarkably clear and vivid description of the act of painting, and an account of the centuries-old arguments about the rendering of objects in pictorial space, whether they should be as a group of hard outlines enclosing masses, or as freely-painted intersecting surfaces.

With these themes, the story was to have significant influence on modernist artists such as Picasso and Paul Cézanne. It is easy to see why this influence came to be as one reads the story. Balzac, through Frenhofer, says:

The purpose of art is not to copy nature, but to express it! You are not a base copyist, but a poet!…We have to seize the spirit, the soul, the very essence of objects and living beings. Physical appearances! Appearances! they are only the accidentals of life, not life itself…Many painters triumph by instinct without understanding this principle of art. You draw a woman but you don’t see her! And that is not how one succeeds in breaking open the secrets of nature.

Balzac was at the leading edge here, and generations of artists struggled to break through the forms that constrained attaining a different way of looking at things. Such artists (generally speaking Modernists) felt breaking such constraints was needed to reach a deeper, more complex view of a subject.  A lofty and commendable goal to strive for, though much easier said then done. Balzac refers to this when he says:

At the core of every human feeling there lives a pristine flower sprung from pure rapture which slowly dwindles until its worth is no more than a memory and its glory a falsehood. Among these fragile emotions, nothing resembles love so much as the youthful passion of an artist as he sets out on the exquisite torment of his ultimate destiny in glory or despair, a passion filled with boldness and trepidation, with indistinct beliefs and certain discouragement.

There is one other statement of Balzac, sort of unrelated to this thread of thought, but so simple yet biting that I want to call it out:

The habit of success takes away doubt, and modesty may be a kind of doubt.

As a gross generalization, it seems many artists feel a need to overcome a lack of self-confidence in order to throw caution aside in an attempt to attain something new and great. Yet, when they do accomplish such, modesty goes out the door with it, leaving a less than pleasant person behind (I am thinking of Picasso as one example, since he was mentioned above). Point being, this thought of Balzac seems to me undoubtably true, and something all who ‘succeed’ in life should watch out for. It is nice to minimize self-doubt, but elimination of such has too many downsides.

In 1846, The Unknown Masterpiece became part of Balzac’s La Comédie humane as part of the grouping called Études philosophiques. As an aside, the characters Nicolas Poussin and Porbus are real historical artists for the 1600’s. Frenhofer, however, is fictional.

This edition of The Unknown Masterpiece is another stunning work from the Rampant Lions Press. Rampant Lions Press was founded in 1924 by Will Carter and published its first book in 1936. Will’s son Sebastian joined the Press full-time in 1966, becoming a partner in 1971 and taking over the business in 1991. Upon Sebastian Carter’s retirement and closing of the Press in 2008 it was the longest continuous running private press in the world. The Rampant Lions Press was introduced to Books and Vines in early 2012 with an article on the Rampant Lions’ magnum opus, their extraordinary publication of The Story of Cupid and Psyche, a book included in the Grolier club publication A Century for the Century, 1900-1999.  Books and Vines also reviewed The Very Rich Hours of Le Boulvé, as well as The Psalms of David, both of which rank with the Rampant Lions’ finest work.

Sebastian Carter designed and printed this edition, using an excellent new translation, done for this edition, from Peter Raby. As I have come to expect from Mr. Carter, the presswork is simply outstanding (just see some of the macro’s of text below). The Monotype Times New Roman is crisply part of the nicely textured, light beige Zerkall Antique mould-made paper. There are six tipped-in aquatints by accomplished English artist Thomas Newbolt (see here for an article on his award winning 2013 self-portrait). Mr. Carter tells us that he and Mr. Newbolt agreed that they did not want a literal depiction of scenes from the story. Instead, Newbolt shows “what might be Frenhofer’s life drawings before the process of obliteration began.” I think this an excellent decision, and it was very well executed. While I have the special edition with original aquatints (printed at the artist’s studio by Herbert Roell) and a binding of tawed goatskin with plain oak boards, I am sure the standard edition, with the prints reproduced by duotone offset lithography and a binding of quarter cloth with specially-designed patterned paper boards, would very nicely done also (knowing Mr. Carter’s work, how could it be anything but nice!).

According to the Rampant Lions Press website, there are some copies of this edition left, at very reasonable prices. As with the previously reviewed and available The Psalms of David, you should contact Mr. Carter if you have interest. These are very collectible editions that fans of fine press editions, Balzac and/or Thomas Newbolt really should have!

About the Edition

  • Designed and printed by Sebastian Carter
  • New translation by Peter Raby
  • With six aquatints by Thomas Newbolt, tipped-in
  • Typeset by Speedspools of Edinburgh in Monotype Times New Roman
  • Printed on Zerkall Antique mould-made paper
  • The regular edition of 250 copies is bound, by The Fine Bindery, in quarter cloth with specially-designed patterned paper boards, in a slip-case, with the prints reproduced by duotone offset lithography at the Stinehour Press, Vermont
  • Two special editions are quarter-bound, byBrignell Bookbinders, intawed goatskin with plain oak boards, in a slip-case, and have the originalaquatints, printed at the artist’s studio by HerbertRoell:
    • 40 copies signed by the artist and the translator
    • 10 copies with an additional portfolio with an extra set of the prints, each signed by Thomas Newbolt
  • Publisher’s note at end by Sebastian Carter explaining the history of the story
  • 52 pp. 26 x 18.5 cm

Pictures of the Edition

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The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Slipcase
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Slipcase
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Book Spine (in slipcase)
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Book Spine (in slipcase)
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Spine
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Spine
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Cover and Spine
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Cover and Spine
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Cover
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Cover
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Cover
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Cover
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Side View
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Side View
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Frontispiece
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Frontispiece
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Title Page
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Title Page
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Copyright and Colophon pages
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Copyright and Colophon pages
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Sample Text #1
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Sample Text #1
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Sample Text #1
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro of Sample Text #1
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro Text Sample
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Macro Text Sample
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Sample Text #2
The Unknown Masterpiece, Rampant Lions Press, Sample Text #2

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