Ten years in the making but seen by no one, aspiring artist Nicolas Poussin and established artist Francois Porbus attempt to catch a glimpse of legendary artist Frenhofer’s so called masterpiece after being invited to his studio, where Nicolas is awestruck by Frenhofer’s talent.
Nicolas is young, confident, and full of passion, and believes he can conquer the world. He studies under the established royal court artist Porbus, but one such meeting is interrupted by the appearance of the elderly and legendary master painter Frenhofer. He is as quick to paint as he is to talk philosophically about art, and launches into a speech about the nature of art, arguing that painting must involve a love of the subject and a love of the craft itself. Art, he argues, is not merely about copying life, but expressing it and finding the beauty and love in it.
Nicolas, determined to find a way to see the painting, has a plan - he will offer his lover and muse, the stunningly beautiful Gillette as a model for Frenhofer in exchange for a glimpse of his masterpiece. Gillette, a sensitive young woman, is unfailingly loyal, gentle, and loving, and is hurt that Nicolas would offer her up in such a way, but accepts this out of love for Nicolas.
Honore de Balzac makes the argument through the character Frenhofer that art is more than merely copying life, insisting it's about expressing life, love, and beauty–the things of which Porbus lacks, and which Frenhofer’s own masterpiece contains. He also emphasises that art combines the love of the subject, and love of the painting itself. And only when both forms of love are combined is a true work of art made in it's purest form.