PRINT April 1980


A Fable of Modern Art

FOR INNUMERABLE ARTISTS, FRENHOFER WAS a powerful and abiding reference. Legend has it that at the end of his life the aged Cézanne, on hearing the Balzac fable, pointed his finger to his chest, designating himself as Frenhofer. Picasso illustrated the text, often quoted from its credos, and boasted to his friends of inhabiting Frenhofer’s world. Matisse revered him, Rilke paraphrased him, and Schoenberg emulated his precepts. To this day, de Kooning and scores of others still make allusions to Frenhofer’s quizzical tale. But who, then, is Frenhofer?

On one level, surely, he is the hero of The Unknown Masterpiece, Balzac’s tale that has as its focus a first unseen, then “unseeable” or typically “modern” artwork. The Frenhofer of the story devotes ten years and countless meditations to painting the “essence” of a famous courtesan. But her “image,” as such, does not exist; when the artist

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