Behold Pablo Picasso’s Illustrations of Balzac’s Short Story “The Hidden Masterpiece” (1931)


Pablo Picas­so had a long and com­plex rela­tion­ship with book illus­tra­tion. The mod­ern painter hat­ed to work on spec and resist­ed tak­ing com­mis­sions. Nonethe­less, when it came to lit­er­a­ture, he made well over 50 excep­tions, illus­trat­ing the work of scores of authors he admired. As John Gold­ing writes in The Inde­pen­dent, Picas­so had always grav­i­tat­ed toward the lit­er­ary; he wrote pro­lif­i­cal­ly, was “attract­ed to art that had a lit­er­ary fla­vor,” and “pre­ferred the com­pa­ny of writ­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly poets, to that of oth­er painters and sculp­tors.” Gold­ing writes of the artist’s par­tic­u­lar love for the Span­ish Baroque poet Luis de Gongo­ra, whose work he illus­trat­ed in a 1948 edi­tion, and who was to “affect the future devel­op­ment of Picasso’s art in a way that his oth­er lit­er­ary col­lab­o­ra­tions did not.” But this may be a hasty judg­ment. As it turned out, Picasso’s 1931 illus­tra­tion of a short sto­ry by Hon­oré de Balzac, “The Hid­den Mas­ter­piece” (Le Chef‑d’oeuvre incon­nu), would affect him great­ly, and indi­rect­ly con­tributed to the cre­ation of his most famous work, the enor­mous anti-war can­vas Guer­ni­ca.


Picas­so accept­ed the Balzac com­mis­sion from art deal­er Ambroise Vol­lard (see the title page and fron­tispiece at top, Picasso’s por­traits of Balzac above) and com­plet­ed the thir­teen etch­ings in 1931 for a cen­ten­ni­al edi­tion (see ten of the illus­tra­tions here). Many have con­sid­ered these etch­ings “land­marks in the his­to­ry of engrav­ing.” Balza­c’s sto­ry, admired by oth­er painters like Cézanne and Matisse, is among oth­er things a tale of an artist ahead of his time. Set in the 17th cen­tu­ry, “The Hid­den Mas­ter­piece” tells of an aging painter named Fren­hofer, who obses­sive­ly labors over a work he has kept secret for years. When two younger admir­ers, painters Poussin and Por­bus, final­ly man­age to see Fren­hofer­’s secret can­vas, they are appalled—it appears to them noth­ing more than an indis­tinct mess of lines, col­ors and shapes—and they mock the old­er artist and assume their cel­e­brat­ed friend has gone insane. The next day, Fren­hofer destroys all his work and kills him­self.


Picas­so, writes Thomas Ganzevoort, “had faced some­thing of the same dumb­found­ed reac­tion from fel­low artists upon show­ing them his ground­break­ing pro­to-Cubist mas­ter­piece Les Demoi­selles d’Avignon.” He lat­er claimed that the ghost of Balzac haunt­ed him, and he found him­self so com­pelled by the sto­ry that in 1937, he chose for his new stu­dio a 17th cen­tu­ry town­house locat­ed at 7 Rue des Grands-Augustin, the very house many believed to be the set­ting of the open­ing scene in “The Hid­den Mas­ter­piece.” In April of that year, Ger­man war­planes bombed the Span­ish Basque city of Guer­ni­ca, and Picas­so aban­doned all oth­er projects and set to work on his famous large can­vas, which he com­plet­ed in June of that same year (below, see him in his Grands-Augustin stu­dio, at work on Guer­ni­ca). Like his ear­li­er, cubist work, Guer­ni­ca divid­ed crit­ics and per­plexed some of his peers. At its unveil­ing in the 1937 Paris Exhi­bi­tion, the paint­ing “gar­nered lit­tle atten­tion.” Unlike the trag­ic Fren­hofer of Balzac’s sto­ry, how­ev­er, Picas­so did not suc­cumb to self-doubt and lived to see his work vin­di­cat­ed. See this site to learn more about Balzac and Picas­so, includ­ing dis­cus­sion of a dis­put­ed 1934 draw­ing some believe to be Picasso’s own “hid­den mas­ter­piece.”


Relat­ed Con­tent:

See Pablo Picasso’s Spare, Ten­der Illus­tra­tions For a Lim­it­ed Edi­tion of Aristo­phanes’ Lysis­tra­ta (1934)

Watch Picas­so Cre­ate Entire Paint­ings in Mag­nif­i­cent Time-Lapse Film (1956)

A 3D Tour of Picasso’s Guer­ni­ca

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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