Pablo Ruiz Picasso
Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu
(The Unknown Masterpiece)
thirteen etchings on Van Gelder wove paper, average plate size
7 7/8" x 11"
Tweed Museum of Art, University of Minnesota Duluth
Purchased with funds gifted by John T. Brickson and Alice B.
In 1927, Picasso’s dealer Ambroise Vollard
commissioned the artist to illustrate a special re-edition of Honore
de Balzac’s (1799-1850) short story, “Le Chef-d’oeuvre
inconnu” (The Unknown Masterpiece) of 1837. Picasso’s
illustrations for the story consist of 13 etchings, drawn in his
classic linear style, as well as a larger series of engravings. The
portfolio of etchings was published by Ambroise Vollard in 1931,
in an edition of 99. With funds gifted by John T. Brickson and Alice
B. O’Connor, the Tweed Museum of Art was able to purchase No.
83 of the edition of 99, a complete set of these wonderful etchings,
which had resided for many years in a private collection in Toledo,
Ohio and later Duluth, Minnesota.
Balzac’s story is set in the 17th century at a Paris studio
in the rue des Grandes-Augustins. It unfolds around Frenhofer, an
aging artist who is recognized as the greatest painter of his day.
Frenhofer reveals to two of his ardent admirers, Pourbus and Poussin,
that he has been working on a secret painting which has for years
consumed all his creative powers. Pourbus and Poussin scheme to get
Frenhofer to show them the painting by procuring a beautiful young
model for its completion. When they finally see the Unknown Masterpiece
it appears to be nothing but a mess of lines and layers of paint
which they interpret as the work of a madman.
Picasso strongly identified with Frenhofer and was fascinated by
Balzac’s story. In the 1930’s, as if by a strange twist
of fate, he rented No. 7 rue des Grandes-Augustin, which he and others
believed to be the house in which the story begins. It was at this
address in 1937, exactly 100 years after Balzac’s final version
of the story, that Picasso painted his own most famous masterpiece – Guernica.