Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
Born: December 14, 1824 - Lyon, France
Died: October 24, 1898 - Paris, France
"To simplify, that is to release the thought; the simplest conception proves to be the most beautiful."
The works of the great nineteenth-century muralist Puvis de Chavannes, a pivotal figure poised at the threshold of modernism, still adorn public buildings in Paris. Their classically-inspired allegorical themes invoke a timeless, pre-industrial past, adhering to the rules of painting established in the Renaissance. However their shallow, collapsed spaces and broad swathes of color do not adhere to these rules, thwarting proportion and perspective. His own style incorporates bits and pieces of the new and the old, and achieves the transcendent effect that was his goal. Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso (the list reads like a "Who's Who" of modernism) recognized him as a visionary, and he in turn admired the new generation of anti-academics. In his public commissions he focused on themes that pleased the French government (family, order, loyalty, etc.), but he also supported and mentored avant-garde artists, and his work evolved in tandem with theirs. Puvis was one of few academics of any time period who was able to see change coming and adapt to it - the mark of a truly great mind.
Most Important Art
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes Artworks in Focus:
The Pastoral Life of Saint Geneviève (installed 1877)
Puvis's murals for the capital depicting the life of the patron saint of Paris were created between 1874 and 1879. The work is bordered with leafy garlands that lend a decorative quality to the work. Even more emphatically, near the ceiling of the Pantheon a riot of decorative elements, a great frieze of twenty-two haloed figures and a winged monster, hang above the mural. While one sees more shading here than in some of Puvis's later works (which grew flatter and flatter) the abundance of vertical elements (figures stand like columns) that seem to hold up the wall, unlike the diagonals that lead the eye into fictive space (i.e. one-point perspective) in the manner of Renaissance painting. This excited a generation of avant-garde artists, among them Picasso, who set about copying the whole mural immediately after arriving in Paris in 1900. One sees reverberations of it in the elongated figures of Picasso's blue period.Read More ...
These scenes were commissioned three years after the destruction caused by the Franco-Prussian War and the French Commune, a devastating period from 1870-71. Installed in the Pantheon, a former church turned civic building, these murals were an instant critical success that led to future commissions. Classicism (which had fallen out of favor after Napoleon) had re-entered the vocabulary of politics. Puvis's statuesque, draped figures celebrate the return of Classicism and the story of the founding of Paris. A symbol of new beginnings in the present as well as the past, a young Geneviève stands in the center panel of this triptych. Saint-Germain d'Auxerre, having arrived in Nanterre with Saint Loup de Troyes, notices she is bearing the divine seal. The fanciful decorative elements and clarity of form in this geometrically balanced work, coupled with its idealized references to the past, made it an instant success with officials and the public. Puvis's later works would build on this classicizing imagery, radically reducing and simplifying it, and expanding its associations to embrace universal symbolism.
Pierre-Cécile Puvis, later known as Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, was the youngest of four children born to Marie-Julie-César Puvis and Marguerite Guyot. His father found success as a chief mining engineer and encouraged his son to follow in his footsteps. Puvis lost both parents as a teenager - his mother in 1840 and his father in 1843. In 1841, he attended the Lycée Henri IV in Paris and prepared for admissions to the Ecole Polytechnique. However, he decided not to sit for the exams, much against his father's wishes. At a later date, Puvis once again did not take the entrance exams - this time due to illness - and discontinued attending classes at the Faculty of Law. To regain his health, he spent two years in Macon with his sister Josephine and her husband.
Puvis's formal artistic training was sporadic, if not short in duration. In the late 1840s, he spent half a year under the tutelage of Henri Scheffler and in 1848 made a lengthy trip to Italy, where he was exposed to the works of Giotto and Piero della Francesca. Upon returning to Paris, he commenced studies with Eugène Delacroix, who was soon forced to shut down his studio due to illness. Before taking a course in anatomy and perspective at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Puvis studied for a few months under the painter Thomas Couture, whose style featured hard contours and shading. In the decade following 1849, he continued his education via contact with fellow artists and teaching himself rather than formal training. Alongside several friends, who included artists working in painting and engraving, he worked off the model of an ensemble which he called The "Academy" (not to be confused with the officially-sanctioned royal institution also known as the Academy, in Paris, from which he felt somewhat removed) that offered camaraderie and support to one another through artistic feedback.
Around the age of thirty, Puvis met Princess Marie Cantacuzene. She was his main confidant in artistic matters and later became his wife. Marie often sat for his paintings, appearing notably in his portrayal of a young Saint-Geneviève. He also formed a strong friendship with the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas at the beginning of both their artistic careers.
Between 1854 and 1855, Puvis ambitiously set out to execute a mural cycle. At the time, all wall space at the Hôtel de Ville had been promised to other prominent artists (Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominiques Ingres, and Henri Lehmann). Since no public commission was immediately available, he embarked on a series of decorative paintings for the chateau Le Brouchy, his brother's country estate. This kicked off his career as a decorative painter.
Puvis struggled initially to receive institutional support and recognition. This feeling of instability would persist, even after a series of successes. He submitted Jean Cavalier at the Bedside of His Dying Mother to the Salon in 1852, along with other pictures, but failed to gain acceptance until 1859, with an enlarged version of his mural The Return from the Hunt. This greatly affected his view of official art institutions and gave him an unusual degree of empathy for the struggles of young, unrecognized artists for the remainder of his career. It was not until this period that mural paintings gained the prestige that had previously been awarded to other types of painting.
In 1859, the same year that his first work was accepted to the Royal Academy, Puvis appended the noble designation "de Chavanes"to his family name (changed to "de Chavannes" in 1877) and began a love affair with his model Suzanne Valadon (born Marie-Clementine Valadon and also known as Maria Valadon), an artist, and mistress to several high-profile painters in Montmartre. By the early 1860s he was exhibiting and selling work at the Salon on a regular basis. His induction into the Legion of Honor at the Universal Exposition of 1867, secured his position as an institutional insider.
Puvis's critical fortunes rose steadily in the last two decades of his life. At a time when critical agreement was rare, both liberal and conservative critics hailed the frescos he unveiled at the Sorbonne in 1889 as a crowning achievement of the decade. Puvis was promoted to Commander of the Legion of Honor, and the society he had helped to found with Ernest Meissonier and Auguste Rodin (Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts) held its first salon in 1890. A one-man exhibition in New York in 1894 helped cultivate an American audience that remained robust until the mid-twentieth century. In 1895, Puvis married Princess Marie Cantacuzene, his partner for over four decades. They both died the following year after prolonged illnesses, two months apart. According to the artist's wishes, his heirs presented many of his drawings to French museums.
Puvis's impact on the history of art would be difficult to overstate. His aspiration to escape reality and turn inward - toward dreams, mythology, and the imagination - inspired the Post-Impressionists. The comingling of the real and supernatural in Gauguin's Vision After the Sermon, the psychic interiority of Seurat's Les Poseuses, and Cezanne's search for structure all have analogies in the work of Puvis. Another group of artists obsessed with Puvis were the Nabis, whose founder Maurice Denis paraphrased Puvis in his modernist credo: "Remember that a painting, before it is a war horse, a nude woman or some anecdote or other, is essentially a flat surface, covered in colors arranged in a certain order." Puvis's connection with the French literature of the 1880s anticipated the aesthetics and ideals of Symbolism. His languid, classical forms were copied by Picasso shortly after his arrival in Paris, lending form and substance to the Spaniard's famous blue period.
What Picasso and others saw in Puvis is still visible now: a shift away from representation and toward the language of formal abstraction. Born a generation before Van Gogh, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec, Puvis outlived them all and surveyed the past and future of art more calmly than these younger artists who took more risks in life and art. Nevertheless, his flat expanses of muted color and simplification of form were radical in their implications, and of great interest to nineteenth-century Western theorists, and his focus on painting's physical qualities - paint as paint - informed the most famous art theorist and critic of the twentieth century, Clement Greenberg, as late as the 1960s.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Useful Resources on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
| Pierre Puvis de Chavannes |
By Aimee Brown Price
| Dream States: Puvis de Chavannes, Modernism, and the Fantasy of France |
By Jennifer L Shaw
| From Puvis de Chavannes to Matisse and Picasso: Toward Modern Art |
By Serge Lemoine
| Berthe Morisot, the Correspondence with Her Family and Friends: Manet, Puvis de Chavannes, Degas, Monet, Renoir and Mallarmé |
By Berthe Morisot
| A novel technique to restore a cherished mural at BPL |
By Malcolm Gay
| Paris's patron saint Geneviève recalled by Puvis at NGV |
By Kitty Hauser
| The extent of Puvis de Chavannes' stately influence |
By C.B. Liddell
| Onetime Darling of French Artists |
By John Russell
| 10 Bizarre Moments in Ballooning History |
By Richard Holmes