PUVIS AND THE SALON
Although the name of Puvis de Chavannes is anything but a household word in either France or America today, during the last two decades of his life, he was the most famous painter in France. His immense mural paintings adorned museums, churches, and libraries throughout France, and his renowned staircase mural at the Boston Public Library was among the aesthetic triumphs of art patronage in America during the Gilded Age. Puvis, as he was called during his lifetime, obliged an adoring public by exhibiting annually at the Salon and by making for the art market replicas, reductions, and freely composed, deliberate "copies" of his famous paintings.
These two paintings by Puvis date from the 1880's, when his celebrity was at its peak. The larger and more important of the works is The Sacred Grove, a painted reduction of a huge canvas executed for the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Lyons, France, and exhibited in the Salon of 1884. Its subject is loosely mythological. In the center of the composition, Puvis chose to represent the three Plastic Arts —painting, sculpture, and architecture — surrounded by the nine muses of classical antiquity and three androgynous youths making garlands. The figures of the muses are difficult to precisely identify, and this was clearly intentional. Unlike Jean Leon Gerome, who was anxious that his classical subjects be well researched and accurately depicted, Puvis was more interested in a general, poetic evocation of the past. Just as he rejected the "pictorial archeology" of Gerome, Puvis also deliberately avoided the crystalline realism of that hallowed Salon painter. Rather, he adopted a decorative flatness, often associated with Roman wall paintings, and chose subdued, almost chalky colors that suggest those ancient surfaces. In The Sacred Grove, figures are carefully placed in a landscape that is, itself, a study in harmonious proportions largely derived from the dimensions of the classical Golden Section. With its geometrically structured order, airless tranquility, and timelessness, the painting appealed directly to the visual imagination of the young Georges Seurat, who saw the larger version at the Salon of 1884, just before he began work on Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, the great masterpiece in the Art Institute.
Although later in date, The Fisherman’s Family has earlier origins in Puvis’s oeuvre, being a reduced variation on a painting exhibited by the artist at the Salon of 1875. Unfortunately, that original canvas, kept by the artist throughout his life and sold only in 1901 to the Staatliche Gemaldegalerie in Dresden, was destroyed during World War II, so our knowledge of its composition comes only from photographs. The later and smaller painting shown here was executed in a looser, more abstract manner, with less attention given to the shading of the figures. Its surface, both drier and rougher than that of the Salon painting from which it derives, resembles that of classical and Renaissance fresco decorations, which Puvis sought to emulate in his finest works.
Puvis’s paintings were admired by virtually every major artist of the nineteenth century. Seurat and Redon were each moved to emulate aspects of his composition and surface treatment, and Gauguin often looked at photographs of Puvis’s paintings when he needed inspiration in the distant reaches of Tahiti during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Even the great twentieth-century artist Henri Matisse, whose work is so often considered to be about color, owed a tremendous debt to Puvis’s flat surfaces and simple, clearly organized compositions.
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