The paintings of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898) had made their mark in the years following the Franco-Prussian War, when they achieved broad appeal despite the bitter divisions in French society. Their unreal and classical motifs painted in a plain style using pale colours must have been refreshingly different from social realism, the Academy, and the increasingly sketchy landscapes of the Impressionists. Puvis responded by painting increasingly symbolic themes in the same style.
Death and the Maiden from 1872 is most probably based on Schubert’s song of the same title, which expresses the inevitability of death, almost in terms of vanitas, which had last been popular during the Dutch Golden Age. This linked with the recent war, in which so many young French and Prussian people had died, and with contemporary scourges such as tuberculosis, which killed many young adults.
The maidens are seen dancing together, and picking wild flowers, as the personification of death is apparently asleep on the grass at the lower left, his black cloak wrapped around him and his hand resting on the shaft of his scythe.
Completed for and exhibited at the Salon of 1879, Young Women at the Seaside must be one of the palest and plainest paintings of any visit to the beach. Only one of the three young women faces the viewer, and she looks as if she’s about to die of ennui. Even the sea looks cold and distant.
Two years later, in 1881, he exhibited The Poor Fisherman (1881), which proved to be one of his most successful works. Significantly more colourful, Puvis provides rather more detail, although keeping well away from anything which might be mistaken for social realism or the increasingly popular Naturalism.
A thin if not quite emaciated fisherman stands, Christ-like, in his boat waiting for his catch to fill his net. Behind him on the marshy land is his wife picking flowers, and their infant, another possible reference to Jesus Christ.
Puvis painted at least four versions of this work, it was reproduced as a lithograph, and numerous contemporaries copied and admired it, declaring its importance in the development of painting at the time. It is thus one of the formative works which led to the Symbolist movement, whose manifesto was published five years later.
In 1882, Puvis painted the much paler Pleasant Land, which returns to the south coast of France and a small group of young women and their children who are engaged in dolce far niente just above the beach.
For the Salon of 1883, Puvis intensified the unreality with his nocturne The Dream. In a similarly placid and contemplative Mediterranean coastal setting, a traveller (vagrant), with their meagre possessions tied up in a cloth, is asleep under a crescent moon. Three angelic but wingless figures from a dream are shown in mid-air, two scattering stars and one bearing a laurel wreath.
Puvis had painted a succession of murals in France from the 1860s onwards. During the 1880s, these turned increasingly to the recurrent motif of classical figures in a ‘sacred grove’.
This panoramic easel painting of The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses made in the period 1884-89 is a good example of this series. Puvis alludes to the Muses, but doesn’t identify them as such with their customary attributes. Instead, two women (wingless again) are flying, one apparently playing the lyre.
The figures below are engaged in contemplation, discussion, and the central group are listening to a recital of poetry or song. Most of them wear golden laurel wreaths in their hair, and all are dressed in classical robes.
Charity (1887) is a personification of one of the seven Christian virtues, again set in timeless classical terms. She is the mother of twins, one of whom she holds by her breast. She is clasping the back of the neck of a dark wolf, lying beside her, adding a more unusual touch. This was quite a favourite motif, and only nine years previously had been painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in contrasting Academic style.
Of his surviving murals, I think The Sacred Wood is perhaps the most impressive. Completed in 1889, it graces Le Grand Amphithéâtre of La Sorbonne in Paris, and is his ultimate expression of this theme. It includes many classical and artistic references: near the centre, bent over the surface of a pond, is Narcissus, and towards the right, dressed in red, what appears to be the figure of Dante.
In 1890, Puvis was co-founder and first president of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, which became the dominant Salon in Paris.
Puvis continued his low-chroma paintings of coastal scenes with The Shepherd’s Song in 1891. Oddly, the shepherd referred to in the title is the smallest of its figures, perched part-way up an ill-defined rocky slope at the left, above two black goats, as three women are fetching water in the foreground.
During the early 1890s, Puvis developed the theme of the sacred grove and relocated it to a hillside above the city of Rouen, in his Inter artes et naturam (meaning Between Art and Nature), from about 1890-95. His viewpoint is Bonsecours, to the south-east of the city, looking north-west over its bridges and distinctive skyline. Clothing worn suggests a curious mixture of periods, from the classical at the left edge, to the contemporary at the mid-right.
The last of Puvis’ paintings I have to show is The Poet from 1896, which returns to the Mediterranean coast, where a poet, who has just dropped his lyre behind him, is swooning, as a winged angel comforts and supports him. At the upper right is a white dove representing the Holy Spirit. Perhaps this was his prescience of death.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes died in Paris, where he had worked most of his life, on 24 October 1898, at the age of 73. Only three months before, he had finally married his partner of more than forty years, a Romanian princess who died just a month after their wedding.