The story starts on the French resort Mentone where one holidaymaker told a story which happened at the time of his youth. The narrator told about three young artists (one of them was the narrator himself) who had once lived together in a small village. They drew paintings, that were fine works but few of them were sold. The friend came to the point of complete absence of money, all the shops in the village refused to give them the goods on credit. In that crucial moment, one of them (Carl) started to make a statement. He said that "the merit of many a great artist has never been acknowledged until after he was starved and dead" and suggested to do so by pretending as if somebody of them had that fate.
After hot debates, friends to agree, Francois Millet was chosen for this role. Here how the narrator described the scene of the first selling:
'" ... I began to sketch a villa in the outskirts of a big town--because I saw the proprietor standing on an upper veranda. He came down to look on--I thought he would. I worked swiftly, intending to keep him interested. Occasionally he fired off a little ejaculation of approbation, and by-and-by he spoke up with enthusiasm, and said I was a master!
'I put down my brush, reached into my satchel, fetched out a Millet, and pointed to the cipher in the corner. I said, proudly:
'"I suppose you recognise that? Well, he taught me! I should think I ought to know my trade!"
'The man looked guiltily embarrassed, and was silent. I said sorrowfully:
'"You don't mean to intimate that you don't know the cipher of Francois Millet!"
'Of course he didn't know that cipher; but he was the gratefullest man you ever saw, just the same, for being let out of an uncomfortable place on such easy terms. He said:
'"No! Why, it is Millet's, sure enough! I don't know what I could have been thinking of. Of course I recognise it now."
The project had a great success, the real Francois Millet was present at his funeral carrying the coffin with a wax figure. The price for the pictures of Francois Millet soared, they became rich and kept this secret for years. Only at the moment of telling this story, the narrator disclosed it. He said that another guest of this hotel, who was an old, retired, and very rich silk manufacturer from Lyons, was Francois Millet.
As a title for his story, Mark Twain chose the question "Is He Living or Is He Dead?" If we think about it from the viewpoint of collectors of Francois Millet's art who bought the paintings of an artist with a tragic fate, the answer wouldn't be obvious ...
This is the link to the text of the story: