Balzac Realism Essays

Modern Philology

Description:Current issues are now on the Chicago Journals website. Read the latest issue.
Modern Philology sets the standard for literary scholarship, history, and criticism. The journal features contributions on literature in all modern world languages, including productive comparisons of texts and traditions from European and non-European literatures. Its wide editorial scope encompasses literary works, literary traditions, and literary criticism from, roughly, the time of Charlemagne to the present. MP also publishes insightful reviews of recent books as well as review articles and research on archival documents.

Coverage: 1903-2015 (Vol. 1, No. 1 - Vol. 113, No. 2)

Moving Wall: 3 years (What is the moving wall?)

The "moving wall" represents the time period between the last issue available in JSTOR and the most recently published issue of a journal. Moving walls are generally represented in years. In rare instances, a publisher has elected to have a "zero" moving wall, so their current issues are available in JSTOR shortly after publication.
Note: In calculating the moving wall, the current year is not counted.
For example, if the current year is 2008 and a journal has a 5 year moving wall, articles from the year 2002 are available.

Terms Related to the Moving Wall
Fixed walls: Journals with no new volumes being added to the archive.
Absorbed: Journals that are combined with another title.
Complete: Journals that are no longer published or that have been combined with another title.

ISSN: 00268232

EISSN: 15456951

Subjects: Language & Literature, Humanities

Collections: Arts & Sciences III Collection, JSTOR Essential Collection, Language & Literature Collection

Reading Lessons

Honoré de Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece


Anticipating the birth of modern art

By Anka Muhlstein

September 14, 2015


I am an obsessive re-reader: since my adolescence Balzac, Tolstoy, and Proust have been my constant companions. When I want to branch out, I simply abandon the great, classical novels of my three geniuses and turn to their short stories. This summer, I went back to a Balzac novella, The Unknown Masterpiece. It is the story of a fictional 17th-century painter, Frenhofer, who spends 10 years on the portrait of a woman and ends up with what a young Nicolas Poussin, (in his text, Balzac mixes fictional and historical characters) describes as nothing but confused masses of color contained by a multitude of strange lines, forming a high wall of paint out of which emerges a delightful foot. Undone by the incomprehension of his colleague, Frenhofer sets fire to his studio and dies amid his whole production.

The novella is open to various interpretations. One can read it running forward anachronistically. The implication that Balzac predicted the evolution of modern art is irresistible. When his Frenhofer claims that there are no outlines in nature, Balzac seems to be anticipating the Impressionists by 30 years. One can read it as the difficulty of distinguishing between the authentically new and a mad obsession. One can also focus on the exploration of the relation between the male painter and the female nude. These are only a few of the questions that arise in this 160-page story. It is one of the best books on painting. No wonder Cézanne was so moved by it that he declared “I am Frenhofer.”

Anka Muhlstein is a French writer living in New York. Her most recent books are Balzac's Omelette and Monsieur Proust's Library. She was awarded the Prix Goncourt for her biography of Astolphe de Custine


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