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Monday, December 19, 2016

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The Happy Land, 1882, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
For centuries it's been a tradition that when a young man reaches his late teens, finishing some form of what we American's call "high school," that he (girls too now) should have a firm grasp on what they want to do with their lives. It doesn't always work out that way, but then, few traditions are perfect. In fact, as an educator who has followed the lives of a fair number of former students, very often moving on directly to college or some form of technical schooling for a profession isn't always the best path to follow. I've seen quite a number of young people go straight to college, as expected by their parents, only to find that they lacked the emotional, psychological, and/or intellectual maturity to face another four years of classes...and perhaps never will. At the very least they find themselves changing majors a time or two. There's nothing at all new in this recurring situation. In 1845, the French Symbolist painter, Pierre Puvis, at the age of twenty, faced just such a decision.
For some artists, a little education is good. Too much can
sometimes ruin their natural inclinations and style.

In the case of Pierre Puvis, it took a serious illness and two years of recuperation as well as a trip to Italy to make him realize he did not wish to follow in his father's profession by becoming a mining engineer. Puvis was born in 1824 in the east-central town of Lyon, France. He was descended from an old noble family of Burgundy on his father's side, causing him as a young man to add the ancestral "de Chavannes" to his name. Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was educated at the Amiens College and at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. His traditional education was, however, interrupted by illness for two years, giving him time out to consider what he really wanted to do with his life. The trip to Italy in 1846 set him on the road to becoming a painter.
Le Travail (the work), 1863,  Pierre Puvis de Chavannes,
Puvis first began his art studies briefly under Eugène Delacroix, before subsequently moving on to Henri Scheffer and then Thomas Couture when Delacroix retired due to ill health. Thus Puvis was not classically trained. In fact he's often considered to have been self-taught so scanty was his formal art instruction, though he did attend anatomy classes at the French Academy for a time. This lack of formal training, no doubt, took its toll. It would be another five years before the artist made his debut at the Paris Salon, and even then he was largely ignored. His le Travail (above) from 1863 was one of his first works to receive much attention.
The Poor Fisherman, 1880-81, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
Puvis de Chavannes' was a symbolist, even though he studied with some of the romanticists, and is credited with influencing an entire generation of painters and sculptors, particularly the works of several leaders as Modern Art took hold of the Paris art world. Puvis' enigmatic The Poor Fisherman (above) from the early 1880s, not only received much attention back then, it continues to confound writers and critics now. Despite it's largely realistic style and obvious title, what does it mean? Though not so much now, but during the 19th- century, art (especially symbolist art) was expected to have meaning, and the less obvious, the reasoning went, the more profound. Does the fisherman represent God? Is the baby abandoned on the shore his Son? But what of the young male figure? Mankind perhaps?
Puvis de Chavannes' penchant for largely undressing his many
figures seems strange to us today, but, in 19th-century French art at least, it was almost to be expected. Ironically, human
anatomy was not his strong suit.
Puvis de Chavannes is best known as a muralist. He came to be known as "the painter for France," though there's more than a little hyperbole in such a tag. He was good, but he wasn't that good. His first commission was for his brother's chateau, Le Brouchy, a medieval-style structure near Cuiseaux in Saone-et-Loire. The primary decorations take the four seasons as their theme (above). Search as I have, I cannot come up with an image representing Spring, though Puvis seems to have painted any number of images, such as The Happy Land (top), which could visually assume that title.

The absence of Spring might be accounted for due to the
fact that they were painted over a span of some thirty years. The artist died in 1898. Perhaps he just never got around to it.
It's hard to account for Pierre Puvis de Chavasannes' success, except to compare him to the Impressionist and the second generation painters he influenced. Some scholars have noted that the success of the "painter for France" was largely due to his ability to create works which were agreeable to the many ideologies in existence at this time (much like today). I might also suggest that his meager art training outside the academic realm, caused his work to stand apart from that of his peers. In essence, he had just enough training to get by, but not so much as to be labeled "Academic." Many of his works are characterized by a nod to classical art, visible in the careful balanced compositions, and the subject matter, which often refers to visions of Hellenistic Greece. That's particularly the case as to his allegorical paintings such as Between Art and Nature (below), a massive work which occupied him nearly full time from 1890-95. Coming late in his career, some might argue that the work, or at least the workload may have killed him. He died in 1898 at the age of seventy-four.

Between Art and Nature, 1890-95,
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
The Fisherboy, 1880,
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes


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