Sunday, 20 November 2016


“To my mind, a picture should be something pleasant, cheerful, and pretty, yes pretty! There are too many unpleasant things in life as it is without creating still more of them.” ― Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (in full Pierre-Cècile Puvis de Chavannes; born December 14, 1824, Lyon, France—died October 24, 1898, Paris) was the leading French mural painter of the later 19th century. He was largely independent of the major artistic currents of his time and he developed a style characterised by simplified forms, rhythmic line, and pale, flat, fresco-like colouring for allegorical pieces and idealisations of themes from antiquity. He was much admired by a diverse group of artists and critics, including Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Charles Baudelaire, and Théophile Gautier.

Puvis de Chavannes was born Pierre-Cécile Puvis in a suburb of Lyon, France. He was the son of a mining engineer. Being descended from of an old noble family of Burgundy, he later added the ancestral ‘de Chavannes’ to his name. Throughout his life, however, he spurned his Lyon origins, preferring to identify himself with the ‘strong’ blood of the Burgundians, where his father originated. Puvis de Chavannes was educated at the Amiens College and at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. He intended to follow his father’s profession until a serious illness compelled him to convalesce at Mâcon with his brother and sister-in-law in 1844 and 1845, interrupting his studies.

A journey to Italy opened his mind to fresh ideas, and on his return to Paris in 1846 he announced his intention to become a painter. He studied first under Eugène Delacroix, but only very briefly, as Delacroix closed his studio shortly afterwards due to ill health. He studied subsequently under Henri Scheffer and then Thomas Couture. His training was not classical as he found that he preferred to work alone. He took a large studio near the Gare de Lyon and attended anatomy classes at the Académie des Beaux Arts. It was not until a number of years later, when the government of France acquired one of his works, that he gained wide recognition. Puvis de Chavannes made his Salon debut in 1850 with “Dead Christ”, “Negro Boy”, “The Reading Lesson”, and “Portrait of a Man”. In Montmartre, he had an affair with one of his models, Suzanne Valadon, who would become one of the leading artists of the day as well as the mother, teacher, and mentor of Maurice Utrillo.

Puvis de Chavannes’ work is seen as symbolist in nature, even though he studied with some of the romanticists, and he is credited with influencing an entire generation of painters and sculptors, particularly the works of the Modernists. One of his protégés was Georges de Feure. Puvis de Chavannes is best known for his mural painting, and came to be known as 'the painter for France.' His first commission was for his brother’s chateau, Le Brouchy, a medieval-style structure near Cuiseaux in Saône-et-Loire. The principal decorations take the four seasons as their theme. His first public commissions came early in the 1860s, with work at the Musée de Picardie at Amiens. The first four works were “Concordia” (1861), “Bellum” (1861), “Le Travail” (Work; 1863) and “Le Repos” (Rest; 1863).

Over the course of his career, Puvis received a substantial number of commissions for works to be carried out in public and private institutions throughout France. His early work at the Musée de Picardie had helped him to develop his classicising style, and the decorative aesthetic of his mural works. Among his public works are the later cycles completed at Amiens (“Ave Picardia Nutrix”, 1865), at Marseille, at Lyon and at Poitiers. Of particular importance is the cycle at the Palais de Beaux Arts in Lyon, which includes three significant works, filling the wall space in the main staircase. From left to right, the works are “Antique Vision” (1884), “The Wood Dear to the Arts and the Muses” (1884), and “Christian Inspiration”(1884).

Puvis’ career was tied up with a complicated debate that had been ongoing since the beginning of the Third Republic (1870), and at the end of the violence of the Paris Commune. The question at stake was the identity of France and the meaning of ‘Frenchness’. Royalists felt that the revolution of 1789 had been an immense disaster and that France had been thrown off course, while the Republicans felt that the Revolution had allowed France to revert to its true course. Consequently, works that were to be displayed in public spaces, such as murals, had the important task of fulfilling the ideology of the commissioning party. Many scholars of Puvis’ works have noted that his success as a ‘painter for France’ was largely due to his ability to create works which were agreeable to the many ideologies in existence at this time.

His first Parisian commission was for a cycle at the church of Saint Genevieve, which is now the secular Pantheon, begun in 1874. His two subjects were “L’Education de Sainte Geneviève” and “La Vie Pastoral de Sainte Geneviève”. This commission was followed by works at the Sorbonne, namely the enormous hemicycle, “The Sacred Grove” or “L’Ancienne Sorbonne” amongst the muses in the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne. His final commission in this trinity of Republican commissions was the crowning glory of Puvis’ career, the works “Summer” and “Winter”, at the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris. Many of these works are characterised by their nod to classical art, visible in the careful balanced compositions, and the subject matter is frequently a direct reference to visions of Hellenistic Greece, particularly in the case of “Antique Vision”.

Puvis de Chavannes was president and co-founder in 1890 of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (National Society of Fine Arts) founded in Paris. It became the dominant salon of art at the time and held exhibitions of contemporary art that was selected only by a jury composed of the officers of the Société. Those who translated best the spirit of the work of Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes in their own creations were, in Germany, the painter Ludwig von Hofmann and in France, Auguste Rodin. His easel paintings also may be found in many American and European galleries.

The illustration above is the fresco “Summer” painted in the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris, from the end of the artist’s career.

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