Interpretive Resource

Introduction: Chavannes' The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and Muses

An introduction to Puvis de Chavannes' painting of the patron goddesses of the arts, completed after the production of a mural with the same theme.

Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 120.

In 1883 the famed muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes received a commission from his native city of Lyons for a suite of murals for its Musée des beaux-arts. Since Puvis regarded decoration as essential to the aesthetic experience of architecture, he intended the first work in the series, The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and Muses, "to welcome the visitor to the threshold of the Museum, as a baptistry to the threshold of a Church." The image portrays a gathering of the muses in a tranquil, sylvan setting, reminding the visitor that the contemporary term museum had its origin in the Greek word mouseion, or home of the muses. Puvis situated the nine patron goddesses of the arts in a carefully regulated space, their postures evoking an aura of perfect equilibrium. With a pale, whitened palette, the artist emulated the quality of fresco, although he actually worked in oil.

In 1884, before the mural was installed in Lyons, Puvis showed it at the Salon. He painted the Art Institute’s version of The Sacred Grove after the exhibition closed, in accord with his regular studio practice. He conceived of it as a reduction, rather than as a replica, making adjustments in the proportions of the figures and recalibrating their spatial relations on the smaller canvas while fully preserving the spirit of the mural’s serene, arcadian world. Despite its traditional mode and historicized iconography, Puvis’s art was widely admired for its lyrical simplification by contemporary painters such as Mary Cassatt, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat (who began work on his magisterial Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 the year The Sacred Grove was displayed in Paris). At Puvis’s death, Paul Signac lamented, "Who is now going to decorate the walls?"

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