The Fading Dreams of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes 1

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Peace (1867), oil on canvas, 109 x 148.7 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

In my quest to gain better understanding of Symbolism in painting in the late nineteenth century, today and tomorrow I’m going to look at a selection of paintings by an artist who is often considered to be one of its fathers: Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898).

Puvis had never intended to be an artist, but serious illness cut short his studies, and after his convalescence he travelled to Italy. He there became inspired to paint, studying briefly under Eugène Delacroix before he closed his studio. He was then a pupil under Henri Scheffer and Thomas Couture, but proved something of a loner and didn’t follow the Academic tradition of the time. Although his first paintings were accepted for the Salon in 1850, recognition didn’t come until much later.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), The beheading of John the Baptist (The Daughter of Herodias Gives the Signal for the Ordeal of Saint John the Baptist) (1856), oil on panel, 140 × 89.5 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Puvis painted two completely different versions of The beheading of John the Baptist. This is the earlier, from 1856, alternatively known as The Daughter of Herodias Gives the Signal for the Ordeal of Saint John the Baptist, which in itself raises questions.

Salome dominates the painting, her right hand holding the empty platter high above her head as she is about to drop it to signal John’s execution. John the Baptist is still alive at this stage, seen in the murky distance at the left. Another figure, perhaps Herodias, is hiding in Salome’s robe, behind her.

His later painting, from about 1869 and in the National Gallery in London with a smaller version in Birmingham, is more in accord with the biblical account of this story.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), The Wine Press (c 1865), oil on canvas, 18.5 x 13.6, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

The Wine Press from about 1865 is more typical of his mature paintings, showing a classical figurative motif executed quite simply using low chroma throughout. In this case, a bearded young man wearing a wreath as a loincloth stands awkwardly on a wooden step-ladder, tipping freshly harvested grapes into the large wooden press. Three young women who are dressed loosely in classical robes are delivering him the grapes from the vineyard, as a pair of longhorned cattle look on.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Fantasy (1866), oil on canvas, 263.5 x 148.5 cm, Ohara Museum of Art 大原美術館, Kurashiki, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

During the 1860s, he reacted to the popular trend towards realism by painting increasingly unreal works, such as Fantasy from 1866. Two naked people, of indeterminate gender, are in an idyllic wooded landscape near the foot of sheer cliffs. One sits plucking flowers to form a wreath, the other uses a length of ivy to ‘train’ a winged white horse which could be Pegasus or a hippogriff. Puvis’ application of paint is so thin that the wings of the horse are semi-transparent, and his colours are muted in the extreme. In almost every respect, this was the antithesis of social realism, pre-Impressionist landscapes, and Academic painting.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Vigilance (1866), oil on canvas, 271.4 x 104 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.

Puvis increasingly turned to allegory and personifications, like this painting of Vigilance, which he completed in 1866 and was accepted for the Salon of that year. Traditional attributes associated with this personification are the oil lamp which she holds aloft, a book and a rod, which are omitted.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Peace (1867), oil on canvas, 109 x 148.7 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

The following year (1867), Puvis painted a pair of allegories, Peace (above), and War (below), using stronger colours to enable reading of their greater detail. Both are set in classical times in an idyllic landscape. Peace is a group dolce far niente which would later have passed for Aestheticism – men, women and children engaged in nothing more strenuous than milking a goat.

In War, three horsemen are blowing a fanfare on their war trumpets, haystacks in the surrounding fields are alight and pouring black smoke into the sky, and the people are suffering, even though signs of destruction are slight and none is wounded.

The timing of these paintings wasn’t coincidence: France was in the process of sliding inexorably towards its war with Prussia, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III was about to self-destruct.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), War (1867), oil on canvas, 109.6 x 149.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Marseilles, Gateway to the Orient (c 1868), oil on canvas, 38.8 x 57.6 cm, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly before the Franco-Prussian War, he painted this unusual and relatively colourful maritime scene of Marseilles, Gateway to the Orient (c 1868). Set aboard a fanciful sailing ship, it shows the mixed ethnicity of those who crewed and travelled in the vessels which traded with the port of Marseille, on the Mediterranean coast. The city itself is in the distance, which makes its title the more odd. I suspect this painting was a study for one of the murals which he made for the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseilles in the 1860s.

Puvis was deeply affected by the Franco-Prussian War, and the Paris Commune which followed in 1871.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), The Balloon (1870), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.

The role of balloons during the siege of Paris was inspiration for The Balloon of 1870, which became popular as a lithograph made by Émile Vernier. The following year, Puvis painted a pendant The Pigeon (below), which showed another means of communication used during the siege.

Here, a woman seen almost in silhouette waves at one of the balloons bearing news, as it flies near Mount Valérien. In her right hand she holds a musket, symbolic of the arming of the people of Paris at the time. The same woman appears in mourning in The Pigeon, collecting a carrier pigeon which had fought its way through the predatory hawks flown by the Prussians.

The two paintings meant a great deal to Puvis, who reluctantly gave them to the government a few years later, to be prizes in a lottery organised to provide aid to the survivors of the great fire of Chicago in 1871. They didn’t return to Paris until 1987, and are both now in the Musée d’Orsay.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), The Pigeon (1871), oil on canvas, 136.7 x 86.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Rama, via Wikimedia Commons.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), Hope (1872), oil on canvas, 102.5 x 129.5 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. Wikimedia Commons.

Puvis’ Hope from 1872 develops the post-war theme further, and was exhibited at the Salon in 1872, the first following the war. A young woman sits amid a landscape which has been destroyed by fighting. The bleached rubble of a farmhouse is seen in the right distance, and there are two improvised graveyards with clusters of crosses. She holds a sprig of oak as a symbol of the recovery of the nation.

His three paintings provoked reflection rather than taking sides, and became popular across the range of public opinion. They were a turning point in his career.