Plato, Mimesis, and Balzac’s Frenhofer 

There are questions that have been subject of discussions for humanity through ages, such as “What is the purpose of art?”, “Why do we produce or experience it?” or “Can we reach to the truth by art?”. Many philosophers, who were concerned about art, tried to answer such questions in their own thought system. One and the more basic, important of them was definitely Plato from the Ancient Greece. His definition of the concept “mimesis” was one attempt to answer about the place of art in our lives. This answer was so influential that the following philosophy of art was built on Plato’s ideas and many art works gave references to Plato and mimesis. In this short essay, I will summarize Plato’s philosophy on art and explain the mimesis concept, along with analysing one of Balzac’s stories which can be read in Platonian thought as an example.

Introduction: Plato and Mimesis

Some portion of Plato’s thoughts on art was revealed in Republic, one of the most important works by him, especially in the second, third and tenth book. He transferred his ideas through dialogues between Socrates and his students. Socrates was also the teacher of Plato, and his presence on Republic was kind of a tribute to him, as he did not left any written material behind him. This tribute created a cloudy situation on Plato’s own views and personality as the thoughts were written in Socrates’ mouth. That “(…) makes it impossible to tell what position is Plato’s own”[1]; according to Stephen David Ross, who took the three books of Republic (mentioned above) in his compilation book “Art and Its Significance”. He continues in the forewords of the Republic part in that book: “There are critics who believe, indeed, that Plato had no authoritative position, and that exploration of the process of inquiry, of philosophical dialectic, was Plato’s supreme achievement”[2] 

Whether Plato has “a far greater sympathy for the possibilities realizable through art”[3], or not, I will have Republic as a reference for Plato’s position for this essay. According to Plato, the essence of the objects is not in this world. They are beyond our imagination, and the aim of the people is to reach that truth, which is the pattern or “idea”. This can only be achieved by education. If people are educated well and in the true sense, they can get closer to the absolute truth. Philosophers are more likely to achieve this, because of their knowledge in history and previous thoughts by earlier philosophers. Arts, especially the poetry prevents the progression on the way to the truth. Along with art being a deviation from reality (will be explained in the following parts), in my opinion, it is thought as a distraction while searching for the “idea”, an interruption on the progress. In Republic, the art was about to be strictly censored and filtered in order to educate children successfully, preventing them from the interest in “bad” things. If they were allowed to be bad individually, that would spread like virus in the society, and then the state could not have any control on people. That control was important for Plato (and indirectly Socrates), maybe because of creating the ideal environment for reaching the absolute truth. In addition, for preventing the “distraction”, it is proposed that the citizens should expertise only one subject. If a citizen is recruited as a carpenter, he cannot also become a painter, for example. Or an instruments maker cannot be a musician at the same time. In this context, again in my thoughts, search of the truth was distributed to different disciplines, and everyone tries to reach the truth of his own. This would be essential in order everyone to be parallel to each other in their search. 

According to Plato in Republic, the art is an imitation of the things in the world. Poets, painters, sculptors, musicians; they all imitate what their subject is. Their actions are described as “mimesis”. They tend to imitate “things in this world”. Therefore, mimesis is more associated with artists instead of workmen from the hierarchy, which will be explained below. Plato gives the self-explanatory metaphor of bed and table in Socrates’ words: “Let us take any common instance; there are beds and tables in the world, plenty of them (…). But there are only two ideas or forms of them; one the idea of a bed, the other of a table. And the maker of either of them makes a bed or he makes a table for our use, in accordance with the idea that is our way of speaking in this and similar instances but no artificer makes the ideas themselves (…). And there is another artist (…) one who is the maker of all the works of all other workmen. (…) And the painter too is, as I conceive, just such another a creator of appearances (…). But then I suppose you will say that what he creates is untrue. And yet there is a sense in which the painter also creates a bed? And what of the maker of the bed? (…) He cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence; and if any one were to say that the work of the maker of the bed, or of any other workman, has real existence, he could hardly be supposed to be speaking the truth”[4]. The quoted part from Republic points a hierarchy in which the “idea” and its creator (God) is in the first place. The person (carpenter) who takes this idea and build something useful (bed and table) is in the second place. The artist (painter) who represents the objects (bed and table) in his works (painting) is in the third place. 

According to Plato, reality decreases as imitation and copying occurs. Carpenter takes the idea of the form from the absolute creator and builds the bed. He gets far from reality. The painter paints that particular bed. He gets twice far from reality. More and more, the painting of bed loses its functionality of lying down, although keeping the appearance. Philosophy is concerned with the “idea”, therefore it is far more superior to arts, in Plato’s view. Nevertheless, Plato does not seem totally against art, he expresses his respect to Homer and his poems in Socrates’ words, even though he does not approve the content of Homer’s work generally. 

Balzac and The Unknown Masterpiece

French novelist Honoré de Balzac wrote this short story to be published in 1831, with its original title “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu”. The story is about an elder painter who has been working on his masterpiece. The Unknown Masterpiece is a work that can be read through Plato’s philosophy, and there comes a set of references when this kind of reading is done. 

The story starts with the visit of the young painter Nicholas Poussin to Porbus, who is a painter using his artistic capabilities for a living. He paints the royal people such as king, queen of France and their family. At the same time of Poussin’s visit, an old man also makes a visit to Porbus’ studio. Porbus accepts the two men inside, thinking that Poussin is with the old man. The old man starts to criticise the latest work of Porbus, Mary of Egypt, and Poussin understands that the old man is a veteran painter. However, Poussin objects to the critics the old man 

has done, as he is amazed by the painting. He introduces himself to Porbus and the old man, and is accepted as a painter after he sketches some figures. After that, the old man starts to apply his critics to the painting and he really makes successful changes on the canvas that reflects his thoughts. Everyone satisfied; the three painters go to the old man’s house for lunch. He is then introduced to Poussin, with his name Frenhofer. Frenhofer was the assistant of Mabuse, a famous realistic painter who left his artistic heritage and knowledge to Frenhofer. It is revealed on the table that Frenhofer was working on a masterpiece for 10 years, a portrait of fictional woman named Catherine Lescault. Frenhofer is resistant on showing the unfinished work. In fact, he fell in love with Lescault and is jealous about the others seeing her. 

To see the ultimate level of art, Poussin and Porbus insists on seeing the painting. Poussin offers his own lover, the extremely beautiful Gillette, as a potential model. Gillette’s beauty inspires Frenhofer to finish Lescault painting quickly. Poussin and Porbus come to admire it, but all they can see is part of a foot that has been lost in a swirl of colours. Their disappointment drives Frenhofer to madness, and he destroys the painting and kills himself. 

In “The Unkown Masterpiece”, Frenhofer portrays a personality that is parallel to the philosophy of Plato in some aspects. His critiques to Porbus’ Mary of Egypt are highly about the representation. He criticises the painting for not having signs of liveliness. He does not find enough to know the anatomy perfect and paint the form exactly true to the original. He says to Porbus: “You artists fancy that when a figure is correctly drawn, and everything in its place according to the rules of anatomy, there is nothing more to be done. (…) You may know your syntax thoroughly and make no blunders in your grammar, but it takes that and something more to make a great poet. (…) You had only power to breathe a portion of your soul into your beloved work”[5]. These words are similar to the idea that imitation leading the subject far from its trueness. As being a commercial painter, Porbus has a style in which copying directly from the painter’s sight is valid. Because his clients want their portraits to represent themselves exactly. This is a solid example of imitation. Frenhofer finds the painting incomplete and lack of spirit, like Plato finds the imitation far from the truth. Young Poussin finds the painting magnificent however, and gets angry at the old man after a long session of criticising. This detail hints Frenhofer’s position as philosopher in an analogy to Plato’s environment. He seems to be pursuing the truth, instead of a successful representation: “The aim of art is not to copy nature, but to express it. (…) We must detect the spirit, the informing soul in the appearances of things and beings.”[6] 

Frenhofer’s mind set is revealed to be similar to Plato’s mimesis concept in the first part of the story. His thoughts are not only in theory; he also pursues the masterpiece, which is the absolute truth in other words. He works on it for ten years, cannot decide if it is finished. With every patient touch, he gets closer to the perfection; however the moment of reaching that perfection is unknown. Similarly, philosophers try to reach the absolute truth, while getting only some piece of it. For Porbus and Poussin, to see the perfection in art is only possible by seeing the Catherine Lescault painting, they need Frenhofer just like casual people and philosophy students need philosophers. However, in the end, Frenhofer falls from patience in front of Poussin’s girlfriend, and loses the clearance of the path to the perfection unconsciously. Under the charm of the beauty of Gillette, he has the illusion that he finished his masterpiece, but in reality, he has just blurred all the composition except for several parts (such as Lescault’s foot). The perfection remains unreachable all for Frenhofer, Poussin and Porbus, as in Plato’s philosophy it is impossible to reach the truth with restricted human capabilities. And Gillette plays a role of an artwork, as her beauty becomes an interest for Frenhofer, he is distracted on his way to the perfection. This reminds us the concerns in Republic, where art is restricted to the citizens in order to prevent distractions on their duties. 


It is a little bit contradictive to read an artwork about another artwork in Plato’s framework, as we know that art is of lower levels reaching to the information according to Plato. To make this reading valid, we must first normalize the mediums with each other. Life in Platonian medium is the art itself in “The Unknown Masterpiece”. Craftsmanship in Platonian medium is the commercial artistry in “The Unknown Masterpiece”. Art is the subject of desire (beauty, women etc.), and absolute truth is perfection, respectively. With this normalization, the contradiction can be removed. Otherwise, one can ask “If art is just an imitation according to Plato, why, in this context, is such person (who performs an act of art) seen in a merit as high as a philosopher?” and easily underestimate the importance of Frenhofer’s character in this Platonian reading of the story. 

The Unknown Masterpiece is also open to other readings in such aspects as psychology, classicism versus romanticism, aesthetics, art progression etc. We do not know if it is intentionally or unintentionally by Balzac, the mimesis aspect of “The Unknown Masterpiece” makes it an example of how basic the ideas of Plato were. These ideas can still be represented in arts, centuries after Plato. And finally, it is not a bad thing to represent in an imitative form, thanks to the more positive approach by Aristotle, Plato’s successor. Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” is an important example of that. 


[1] Ross, Stephen David. “Art and Its Significance: An Anthology of Aesthetic Theory”. State University of New York Press, 1984. pp. 7-8 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Plato. “Republic”. Book X. 

[5] Balzac, Honoré de. “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu”. The Project Gutenberg EBook. Produced by David Widger. 

[6] Ibid. 

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