33 Chapter 11 – Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

Symbolism & The Academy

Hannah Myles

Audio recording of chapter is available here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/10cCr4rHwgguAiSeyPtBlzuGoSPURpR-e/view?usp=sharing


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes is “held in great regard as one of the greatest muralists in his home country – and arguably in Europe.”[1] This quote really outlines the large amount of influence Puvis de Chavannes had on artwork. He pushed boundaries, while serving as a source of inspiration for other artists. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes’ artwork caused an uproar in the Paris Salon. However, he stood up for himself and others and would not conform to the Salons traditional norms, which proved to make Pierre Puvis de Chavannes an influential figure for other artists and styles.

On the left a muscular, shirtless man swings a sword into the background, about to sweep it across the neck of a kneeling figure in a loincloth in the center of the painting. A glowing cross to the right of the condemned figure separates the martyr from a woman shielding her face in the background, a woman watching in idle contemplation of the scene while holding a golden tray, and a man in profile wearing a red cape who is also watching the proceedings
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1869, oil on canvas

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was most well-known for his decorative mural work; however, he did other types of paintings as well. He did admire Eugene Delacroix, however, he strongly disliked romantic anarchy with “it’s disordered passions, and despised academic conventions, the timid taste and feeble ideas of the so-styled classical.”[2] Mécistas Goldberg, an anarchist critic from the 1900s, believed that Puvis de Chavannes’ “ability to express an ideal community is linked not to what he paints but how he paints.”[3] Puvis de Chavannes’ style is characterized by a muted color palate along with abstract linework and the unique compositional arrangements of his paintings.[4] One of his earlier works is The Beheading of St. John the Baptist in 1869, this oil painting is a complex symbolic piece. Puvis de Chavannes applies muted colors throughout the piece except for around the crown of St. John’s head, which is surrounded by a narrow ray of light. Puvis de Chavannes’ subject matter varies, but often contained “religious themes, allegories, mythologies, and historical events.”[5] The Beheading of St. John the Baptist is a religious theme and a historical event.

An outdoor scene featuring two figures on a raft in the background with more nude figures dotting the far shores, a woman climbing the bank of an island with a woman and child bathing nearby in the foreground, a void where a doorway was meant to intrude into the mural's pictorial space, and a composition of three nude women sunbathing and drying after bathing in the water.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Summer, 1891, oil on canvas, Esquisse pour l’Hôtel de Ville de Paris

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes decorative mural Summer was one of his most recognized pieces and it represented a pivot in his career. There are two Summer paintings, one in the Cleveland Museum and the other in The Hotel-de-Ville of Paris. Summer in the Hôtel-de-Ville (city hall) of Paris depicts women participating in many different activities in a beautiful park, like a woman bathing a child, a couple in a boat, a woman nursing a baby.[6] I think the overall feeling of this section is peace and tranquility, women are in nature relaxing and performing motherly tasks. Puvis de Chavannes also shows the beauty in the natural body too. Although, Puvis de Chavannes painted a second version of Summer (in The Cleveland Museum) it is quite different from the first. Puvis de Chavannes changes the composition multiple times, there is no longer the void created by the doorway as in the original, he also “simplified the background, eliminated the three figures on the far river bank, and enclosed the three women … in an embracing cluster of trees.”[7] The results of the composition change push figures “closer to the viewer… as if we are now witnessing some private, dream-like vision.”[8] I think the biggest change from the first to the second Summer is the more personable feeling. Summer in the Hôtel-de-Ville emanates the feeling of tranquility to the viewers, while Summer in the Cleveland Museum actually makes you feel apart of not only the painting scene but Puvis de Chavannes vision for the piece; like you have been there the whole time he was making it. The Summer murals seem to take one back to an older time, almost more primitive. The contrasting versions also suggest that Puvis de Chavannes was aware of the links he made between “maternal imagery and national sentiment,”[9] as France was at the “height of pronatalist campaign meant to address fears about France’s falling population.”[10] This is a constant theme throughout Puvis de Chavannes murals Summer, he has woman nursing babies, while in the French countryside. These two murals also show his ability to reimagine, be creative, and adapt similar pieces, while evoking a wide variety of feelings. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes creativity and imagination are unquestionably strong.

An outdoor scene featuring two figures on a raft in the background, a woman climbing the bank of an island with a woman and child bathing nearby in the foreground, and a composition of three nude women sunbathing and drying after bathing in the water.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Summer, 1891, oil on canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art
A woman in a white gown sits on a crumbling wall, looking straight at the viewer, her left arm stretched parallel to the canvas surface with her left hand holding a budding twig. A pile of ruins occupy the upper right background
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Hope, oil on canvas, 1872

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was a prominent influence among many different artist styles including Modernism, Symbolist avant-garde, and Post-Impressionists. Some of the modernist artists he has influenced include Georges Seurat, Paul Gauguin (also considered a symbolist), and Pablo Picasso who valued Puvis de Chavannes’ “dreamlike themes and anti-naturalistic style of simplified, flattened forms.”[11] The Symbolists also claim Puvis de Chavannes as part of their movement because of the shared goal of “conveying feelings and ideas through direct plastic meanings.”[12] This can be seen in Puvis de Chavannes color and linework. Take for example Hope, he used abstract linework and the muted colors compared to the bright white of the females dress to convey meaning[13]. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was also influenced of the avant-garde; he veered away from traditional painting styles of the Salon, like Neo-Classicism, and pushed boundaries into new modern techniques like his muted color palates and wide variety of themes. In other words, Puvis de Chavannes is characteristized by an interest in the “irrational and the ambiguous, by a distrust of realism and enthusiasm for dreams and visions.”[14]

A sad looking man stands in a small boat that is against the shore, while a baby lays on a blanket near a woman picking flowers behind him.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Poor Fisherman, 1881, oil on canvas

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes stood up for movements and artists he believed in and was not going to let outside opinions effect his judgement on artwork. Puvis de Chavannes was familiar to the struggle of being an artist in France and the struggle getting work noticed by the Salon; Puvis de Chavannes work did not get accepted into the Paris Salon until 1859.[15] The Salon could make or break an artist career, however, it has a massive impact on art as a whole because “it allowed an elite organization to dictate the definition of art.”[16] This is crucial because the Paris Salon should have allowed artists to dictate art not elite and powerful organizations that possibly do not know anything about art. Puvis de Chavannes was a member on the Salon jury, however, he did not let the elite organizations have power over him when it came to artwork he believed in. In 1872 Puvis de Chavannes resigned from the Salon jury “to protest its rejection of entries of Gustave Courbet, a leader in the assault on academic painting conventions.”[17] Puvis de Chavannes related to rejected artists from the Salon because he was one of them; as many of his paintings can be viewed as “radical.” Take for example his oil painting The Poor Fisherman, it was viewed as quite radical and received negative feedback from the 1881 Salon exhibit, but later in 1887 was bought by the French government.[18] A possible reason for the dislike of The Poor Fisherman in 1881 is the dullness, however, with more in-depth examination one can see the melancholy the piece radiates.

Puvis de Chavannes had a complex relationship with the Paris Salon. The Salon valued more traditional styles like Neo-Classicism and did not like anything seen as different. Therefore, styles like growing Impressionism and the artists of the avant-garde were often rejected. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes supported the artwork rejected by the Salon many times. In 1873 Puvis de Chavannes began “exhibiting at the galleries of Paul Durand-Ruel … [and he] joined the campaign demanding that the state accept the gift of Manet’s Olympia.”[19] Manet’s artwork was controversial much like Puvis de Chavannes’, Olympia was not liked by the Salon for many of the same reasons Puvis de Chavannes artwork was disliked because of its muted color and flatness. Puvis de Chavannes was not going to let an elite organization dictate the art world.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes impact on art has been immense, his legacy represents a shift “away from representation and toward the language of formal abstraction.”[20] He has been an influential figure in many artist styles and artists. Puvis de Chavannes did not bow to elite organizations and stood up for what he believed in. Puvis de Chavannes’ imagination was huge, his artwork escaped reality, his artwork often leaves the viewers questioning the true meaning. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes pushed art towards the imaginary, leaving naturalism behind.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Kiama Art Gallery. “Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – Symbolism and Hope.” Last modified May 25, 2016. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – Symbolism and Hope – Kiama Art Gallery (wordpress.com) .

Boston Preservation Alliance. “Philosophy Mural, Boston Public Library.” Accessed on October 21, 2021,  Philosophy Mural, Boston Public Library | Boston Preservation Alliance.

Daily Dose of Art. “’The Poor Fisherman” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.” Accessed on October 21, 2021. “The Poor Fisherman” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes | Daily Dose of Art (myddoa.com).

My Modern Met. “The History of the Prestigious Paris Salon (And the Radical Artists Who Subverted it).” Last modified April 4, 2020.  The History of the Paris Salon (And the Radical Artists Who Subverted It) (mymodernmet.com).

Neo-Impressionism. “Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.” Accessed on September 16, 2021. Puvis de Chavannes – Neo-Impressionism (neoimpressionism.net).

The Art Story. “Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – Biography and Legacy.” Accessed on September 26, 2021. Puvis de Chavannes Biography, Life & Quotes | TheArtStory.

The Cleveland Museum of Art. “Summer.” Accessed on October 19 2021. Summer | Cleveland Museum of Art (clevelandart.org).

The National Gallery. “Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes.” Accessed on September 24, 2021. Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (1824 – 1898) | National Gallery, London.

Robinson, William H. “Puvis de Chavannes’s “Summer” and the Symbolist Avant-Garde.” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 78, no. 1 (1991): 2-27.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/25161310.

Shaw, Jennifer L. “Frenchness, Memory, and Abstraction: The Case of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.” Studies in the History of Art 68, no. 45 (2005): 152-171. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42622396.

Shaw, Jennifer L. “Imagining the Motherland: Puvis de Chavannes, Modernism, and the Fantasy of France.” The Art Bulletin 79, no. 4 (1997): 586-610. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3046277.


[1] Boston Preservation Alliance, “Philosophy Mural, Boston Public Library,” accessed on October 21, 2021,  Philosophy Mural, Boston Public Library | Boston Preservation Alliance.

[2] New Advent, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (newadvent.org) .

[3] Jennifer L. Shaw, “Frenchness, Memory, and Abstraction: The Case of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,” Studies in the History of Art 68, no. 45 (2005): 167, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42622396.

[4] William H. Robinson, “Puvis de Chavannes’s “Summer” and the Symbolist Avant-Garde,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art 78, no. 2 (January 1991): 15,  https://www.jstor.org/stable/25161310.

[5] Kiama Art Gallery, “Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – Symbolism and Hope,” lasted modified May 25, 2016, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – Symbolism and Hope – Kiama Art Gallery (wordpress.com).

[6] Robinson, “Puvis de Chavannes’s “Summer” and the Symbolist Avant-Garde,” 6.

[7] Robinson, “Puvis de Chavannes’s “Summer” and the Symbolist Avant-Garde,” 8.

[8] Robinson, “Puvis de Chavannes’s “Summer” and the Symbolist Avant-Garde,” 8.

[9] Jennifer L. Shaw, “Imagining the Motherland: Puvis de Chavannes, Modernism, and the Fantasy of France,” The Art Bulletin 78, no. 4 (December 1997): 60, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3046277.

[10] Shaw, “Imagining the Motherland: Puvis de Chavannes, Modernism, and the Fantasy of France,” 601.

[11] The Cleveland Musuem of Art, “Summer,” accessed on October 19, 2021, Summer | Cleveland Museum of Art (clevelandart.org).

[12] Robinson, “Puvis de Chavannes’s “Summer” and the Symbolist Avant-Garde,” 15.

[13] [13] Kiama Art Gallery, “Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – Symbolism and Hope,” accessed on November 11, 2021.

[14] Neo-Impressionism, “Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,” accessed on October 20, 2021, Puvis de Chavannes – Neo-Impressionism (neoimpressionism.net).

[15] The National Gallery, “Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes,” accessed on September 24, 2021, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (1824 – 1898) | National Gallery, London.

[16] My Modern Met, “The History of the Prestigious Paris Salon (And the Radical Artists Who Subverted It)” lasted modified April 4, 2020, The History of the Paris Salon (And the Radical Artists Who Subverted It) (mymodernmet.com).

[17] Robinson, “Puvis de Chavannes’s “Summer” and the Symbolist Avant-Garde,” 4.

[18] Daily Dose of Art, “’The Poor Fisherman” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,” accessed on October 21, 2021, “The Poor Fisherman” by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes | Daily Dose of Art (myddoa.com).

[19] Robinson, “Puvis de Chavannes’s “Summer” and the Symbolist Avant-Garde,” 4.

[20] The Art Story, “Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – Biography and Legacy,” accessed on September 26, 2021, Puvis de Chavannes Biography, Life & Quotes | TheArtStory.

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