The story is set in the Seventeenth century Paris and commences at a studio in rue des Grandes-Augustins. It centers around an aging painter called Frenhofer, who is considered to be the greatest painter of his time. Frenhofer reveals to two ardent admirers, the painters, Pourbus and Poussin, that he has, for years, been working on a secret painting that has all but consumed his creative powers. Pourbus and Poussin scheme to get Frenhofer to reveal the painting, by procuring a beautiful young model for its completion. When the two artist's eventually set eyes on Frenhofer's Unknown Masterpiece, it appears to them to be nothing nothing other than a mess of lines and layers of paint. To Frenhofer's dismay, they interpret the painting as the work of a raving madman.
Picasso identified with Frenhofer and became fascinated with Balzac's eerie story. Indeed, in the 1930's, as if by a strange twist of fate, he rented a studio at Nš 7 rue des Grandes-Augustin, which he and others believed to be the the house in which the first part of the story takes place. It was at this same address that Picasso painted Guernica, exactly one hundred years after Balzac's final version of the story.
Picasso claimed to have been haunted by Balzac; and there seem to be strange parallels between Frenhofer's Unknown Masterpiece and the mysterious 1934 drawing. As with Frenhofer's masterpiece, the drawing is the product of an extraordinary creative process. Its existence was also kept a closely guarded secret. Similarly, at first encounter to many, the drawing also appears to be a mess of lines and smudged inks. Yet, what it contains is the most complete convergence of themes in the entire range of Picasso's work. For these reasons, it becomes apparent that the drawing was intended to be Picasso's very own, "Unknown Masterpiece."