Puvis de Chavannes
Biography of French Mural Painter, Decorative Artist.

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Science, Art, and Letters (1889)
Central Section of the mural,
Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne.

Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)


Early Life
Early Paintings
Murals in the Amiens Museum
Breakthrough: Childhood of St. Genevieve - Pantheon
High Esteem
Reputation and Legacy

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used by Puvis de Chavannes, see:
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For the best works, see:
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An important figure in French mural painting of the second half of the 19th century, he was greatly influenced by the Symbolism movement and by the academic Neoclassical painting of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), J.A.D.Ingres (1780–1867), and Theodore Chasseriau (1819-56); indeed, in some respects, his work is largely a sequel to the murals painted by Chasseriau. Despite his respect for academic art and also the Paris Salon, he remained as distant from the official schools as from the small groups on the fringes. His primary contribution to French painting was the application of new ideas to traditional media and established themes, a synthesis he achieved in the paintings he exhibited at the Paris Salons: War and Peace at the 1861 Salon and Work and Rest in 1863; works that immediately interested the critics. The latter two were acquired by the Museum in Amiens which promply commissioned him to do a series of fresco paintings, a technique in which he excelled, eventually becoming the greatest muralist in France. During his career he decorated numerous public buildings in Paris (for example, the Hotel de Ville, the Pantheon and the Sorbonne) and was admired by avant-garde modern artists like Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Georges Seurat (1859-91), and Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) as well traditional painters. His reputation has declined somewhat during the 20th century, and his idealized depictions of antiquity or allegorical representations of abstract themes now seem a trifle anaemic.



Early Life

Born Pierre-Cecile Puvis de Chavannes in Lyon, the son of a mining engineer, he came from an old aristocratic family in Burgundy. He attended the Lyons College and then the Lycee Henri IV in Paris, after which he enrolled at the Ecole Polytechnique in order to follow his father into the engineering profession. However, illness interrupted his studies, and after a trip to Italy, which widened his horizons and gave him a new angle on life, he decided to make art his profession. Accordingly, and went to study under the French history painters Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and Thomas Couture (1815-79), and Henri Scheffer, the lesser known younger brother of Ary Scheffer (1795-1858). This was followed by another trip to Italy, lasting over a year, which helped to establish his belief in the primacy of decorative art, as expressed in large-scale decorative painting - a type of creativity that became his life's work. Being of a conservative disposition, rooted more in the Renaissance than modernism, Puvis de Chavannes pursued his career as an artist within the confines of academic classicism and the dictates of the official Salon. And although it took many years for him to impress himself upon his contemporaries, he gradually won their acceptance, notably for his monumental works. By the 1880s he was a firmly established figure in the Paris Salons, and by the 1890s he was seen as the foremost master of his genre.



Early Paintings

As a painter Puvis de Chavannes admired Delacroix's technique and vision, but not his undisciplined passion. If there was any group that attracted his sympathy it was the Barbizon School of landscape painting, especially works by Camille Corot (1796-1875). He was also especially drawn to the decorative paintings of Theodore Chasseriau, whose style combined the classical linear composition of J.A.D.Ingres and the colour of Delacroix, and who would be the model for several of his later works.

Puvis's first Salon exhibit was a Pieta shown as early as 1852, but thereafter he was rebuffed for several years: his new and rather startling pictures - including Salome and Julia achieved a measure of notoriety for their absence of shadows and Byzantine qualities, but failed to impress the jury. A more acceptable work - Return from the Hunt (1858, Museum of Marseilles), notable for its heroic movement - was shown at the 1859 Salon, and signalled his unmistakable decorative talent.

Murals in the Amiens Museum

It was the commission to paint the frescoes around the staircase in the Amiens Museum, that gave Puvis de Chavannes the opportunity he needed to demonstrate his true metier of monumental painting. In 1861 he produced War and Peace; in 1863, Work and Rest; in 1865 came Ave Picardia Nutrix: now considered by many critics to be his finest work, although its novelty and simplicity aroused no little controversy at the time. Even more criticism was directed at his next series of murals, Autumn, Sleep, Harvest (1870 Salon), and Poor Sinner (1875 Salon). Salon critics accused him of not knowing how to draw or paint, without fully appreciating the difficulty of comparing large-scale murals with monumental easel paintings. As a result, for the next decade or so, Puvis de Chavannes remained misunderstood and under-appreciated.

Breakthrough: Childhood of St. Genevieve - The Pantheon

Then in 1876 he was commissioned by the Marquis de Cheunevideres to produce a series of paintings illustrating the "Childhood of St. Genevieve" (1876-8) in the Church of St. Genevieve (now the Pantheon). This was the first time that his mural art was seen amid natural surroundings (away from the artificial setting of the Salon), and it was instantly recognized, by both critics and artists, as one of France's great decorative works.

Further masterpieces of public art followed, and each added to his growing reputation. They included: Ludus pro patria (1880-2), painted for the Museum of Amiens; a variety of murals (1883-84) for the Saint-Pierre Palace, Paris; Sacred Wood Dear to the Arts and Muses (1884), Antique Vision and Christian Inspiration and others, for the Lyons Museum of Fine Arts; Inter Artes et Naturam (c.1888-90) for Rouen Museum; Summer, Winter and Victor Hugo Presenting his Lyre to Paris, produced for the Hotel de Ville (1893-5); as well as St. Genevieve Resupplying the Parisians (1897) and St. Genevieve Watching over Paris (1898), for the Pantheon.

During this period, his working life settled into an unvarying routine. Every day he took a brisk 60-minute walk from his home in Montmartre to his studio at Neuilly. Then he worked uninterruptedly for 9-10 hours on his painting, after which he took another brisk walk home. At around 1900 hours, he ate his one daily meal, before devoting the rest of the evening to reading, music, and socializing with friends.

High Esteem

Such was the high esteem in which he was held during this last period of his life, that he was commissioned by the government whenever a particularly solemn decorative work was required, such as, for example, the decoration of the grandiose hemicycle of the Sorbonne (1887-9), for which he painted Science, Art, and Letters. He was even head-hunted by the City of Boston to decorate the monumental staircase of its public library (1895-1898).

Apart from these mural compositions, his mythological painting is also of interest. These pictures that are almost always set in mysterious landscapes, with brilliant colour and a composition that is somewhat academic and cold, but free and calm in the development of the subject matter. An example is the enigmatic work The Poor Fisherman (1881, Musee d'Orsay, Paris), and the dreamy Woman on the Beach (1887, Hermitage, St Petersburg).

In 1891, Puvis de Chavannes was unanimously elected President of the National Society of Fine Arts (Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts). It duly became the dominant salon of the day and staged exhibitions of modern art. He was also made a Commander of the Legion of Honour. Married to Princess Marie Cantacuzene whom he had first encountered in Chasseriau's studio, he also had an affair with Suzanne Valadon, the mother of the French urban genre-painter Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955), who may be his son. Puvis de Chavannes died in Paris in October 1898, at the age of 73.

Reputation and Legacy

Puvis de Chavannes had a significant influence on young artists of his day, notably the Symbolists, the Neo-Impressionists, decorative painters like the Cloisonnists Emile Bernard and Louis Anquetin, even Picasso. He was conservative in his general approach to art, but liberal in his attitude to avant-garde art, especially when sitting on Salon juries. Indeed, he was one of a tiny handful of academic painters whose work was respected by both traditional and radical artists. In his own work, his novel style overcame his old-fashioned subjects and avoided the dry photographic realism which was so typical of academic painting towards the end of the century. One of the best history painters in his field, his simplified forms, respect for the flatness of the picture surface, and use of non-naturalistic colour to express the mood of the painting, gave his work a modern, almost abstract look.

Paintings by Puvis de Chavannes can be seen in churches, public buildings and several of the best art museums in France.

• For biographies of other modern French muralists, see: Famous Painters.
• For more details of painting in France during the 19th century, see: Homepage.

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