Genius artists, by nature of their label, are held to an unparalleled standard of creativity. Eccentricity is not merely valued in their works; it’s expected. Therefore, when these connoisseurs of the imaginative world are overcome by ordinariness, they implore the universe to deliver some form of inspiration. Faced with the task of interpreting nature rather than replicating it, they invoke muses to break dry spells of creativity and revive artistic ingenuity. Upon completion of the genius’ awaited artwork, audiences scrutinize techniques, dissect meanings, and evaluate intentions. Yet beneath this enigmatic product, whether alluring or unseemly, lies the untold story of the muse. Honore de Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” is a story of a painter and a story of obsession, but it’s also a story of a grief-stricken muse with her complexities of her own. As a result of her exploitation as a victim, a lover, a model, and a muse, Gillette is robbed of her agency and self-worth.
The short story depicts the deterioration of Gillette’s self-respect from her first appearance to her eventual sense of defeat. Balzac portrays her as significant only in regard to her contribution to Frenhofer’s artwork, and essentially as a gambit in the process of creating a masterpiece. Her status as a ploy-like muse develops as a result of both coercions from her lover, Poussin, and from Frenhofer, the genius artist himself. In a sense, her decision to pose nakedly for Frenhofer is her own, yet patriarchal pressures cause her to see it as more of an obligation than a choice. By embedding this obligation, Balzac epitomizes traditional gender roles and illuminates the construct women like Gillette were innately to accept. The prospect of pleasing her lover outweighs her apprehensions, and she frequently fluctuates between states of childlike bliss to threatening depression. Balzac describes her jejune levity, “Obediently, the happy girl leaped onto the painters lap” (29). Gillette is conveyed as mindless, obliging, shortsighted, and naïve. Because of the incorporation of this playful diction, exemplified in words such as “leaped” and “happy,” parallels can be drawn from Gillette’s demeanor to that of a child. She’s merely seeking love and affection, and thoughtlessly so, as she says to Poussin, “I’m purposely willing to ruin myself for your sake” (Balzac 31). Her greatest ambition is to satisfy her patronizing lover, and to do so would be to actualize her most wondrous dreams. Gillette is an accessible target for Poussin and Frenhofer: both beautiful enough to be a muse and subservient enough to be a cooperative one.
From an objective outlook, Gillette and Poussin are, in relation to one another, lovers. Yet as dialogue progresses and Poussin elucidates his ignominious sense of morality, Gillette emerges as merely a docile companion exploited for Poussin’s benefit. To Gillette, Poussin is someone to be exalted and cherished, an invaluable prize to be kept. She says, while immersed in discussion about her modeling endeavor, “Let’s go: being an eternal memory of your palette will still be a kind of life” (Balzac 36). Whether she says this out of love or a lack of self-respect is ambiguous, yet it is apparent that in an unhealthy manner she acts as a lover to Poussin and is willing to sacrifice her body for his happiness. Universally, sacrifices are a part of love, but self-degradation is not. The imbalance here reveals Gillette’s conventional perception of what a woman should be to her lover, and Poussin’s blind acceptance of her infinitesimal sense of self. Gillette and Poussin convolute the notion of love so that it bears little resemblance to the modern concept of mutual affection. Throughout the entirety of the story, Gillette’s primary pursuit is to preserve and foster the love she feels she has found in Poussin, yet in this venture her ties to her morals grow irrevocably thin. In the context of the nineteenth century, Gillette indeed embodies the character of a lover, and Balzac exaggerates her submissiveness in order to exhibit her conformity to social precepts.
An ethnocentric standpoint would deem Gillette a definitive victim, one accustomed to the obsequiousness typical of her era. When yielding to men’s demands was inherently necessary, women pragmatically did so to feel fulfilled. Yet Gillette is distinctly a victim because of the emotional trauma that ensues as a result of this social commandment. Balzac exhibits her dehumanization as a muse when he writes, before Gillette enters Frenhofer’s studio, “Gillette stood before him in the innocent posture of a terrified Caucasian girl carried off by brigands to some slave dealer” (36). Evidently, Gillette is marked by desperation and isolation. By likening her to a slave, Balzac depicts her lack of choice in the matter, as well as her sorrows because of it. The analogy to the slave also serves to illustrate that at the conclusion of the story, Gillette is robbed of her agency. Even before the devastating, unremarkable painting is divulged, she already feels like a tool being maneuvered by obsessive men. She is being “carried off” into a world of confined freedom and dissipated dignity.
Although Gillette’s sense of agency begins to wane long before Frenhofer’s “masterpiece” is revealed, the disclosure of the allegedly hideous painting heightens her sense of isolation. After selling such an immense portion of herself for the sake of an artistic masterpiece, the realization that her trauma was in vain is both disheartening and embarrassing. Her personal afflictions of love, self, and morality congregate to form the most devastating emotion, and her previously suppressed sorrows are exhumed. She is overcome with self-disgust and comprehends the abject futility of the sacrifice that led her to resent both Poussin and herself. Demoralized after the experience of stripping herself of her dignity, she screams, “Kill me! I’d be vile to love you still— you fill me with contempt. I admire you, yet you horrify me” (Balzac 43). Her mortification has left her unwilling to live, and resuming her love would deem her utterly pitiable; however, she is entrapped in an ineluctable paradox. Despite her repulsion for what he allowed her to do and his selfish treachery, Gillette is obliged to admire Poussin still, rigidly limited in freedom by social standards. Her freedoms, now that she has made the calamitous exchange of self-worth for a man’s love, are virtually nonexistent. As she prophetically warned Poussin earlier in the story, “If I showed myself to someone else, you wouldn’t love me anymore. And I myself would feel unworthy of you” (Balzac 30). Gillette’s world is scant beyond her lover, her existence meaningless without his approval and “love.” The failure of the painting is reminiscent of Gillette’s own failures, both to herself and Poussin, whose respect she is certain has receded.
Gillette, at this concluding point in the story, is a representation of the unintentional destruction geniuses can wreak on the people around them. Frenhofer was driven to insanity by his compulsive and incessant desires to perfect his work. Had he not been so inextricably immersed, Gillette would not have been needed as his muse, and her superficial yet comfortable life would have continued. Her hopelessness and disparity are direct results of three men willing to exploit those around them for their unrivaled obsession.
The men surrounding Gillette perceive her as an amenable asset in creating the immaculate painting. She is simply one of Frenhofer’s innumerable tactics to obtain the ideal, and her relevance to the painters lies only in her contribution to the art. Her strife and emotional discordance are not incorporated in their bottom line, her trepidation is never ameliorated, and her individual story is not the focus. Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” is a tale of ingenuity, madness, and unadulterated fascination. Gillette’s most influential role, transcending her status as a lover, model, muse, or victim, is her accentuation of madness and genius. Her life crumbled as a result of the recklessness of genius, the blindness of the immersed, and the impossibility of perfection. Gillette’s character is a symbol of the dark consequences of utter obsession; Frenhofer’s obstinate pursuit was toxic to more souls than just his own. Through her forged relationship, her moral discord, and her inauspicious fate, Gillette reveals that ingenuity can be insidious.
de Balzac, Honore. The Unknown Masterpiece. New York: NY Review of Books, 2001.