Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – Symbolism and Hope

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Peace, 1861
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Peace, 1861

Recognised as a leading Symbolist artist Pierre – Cécile Puvis de Chevannes’ interpretation of Classicism gave his murals and large grand paintings a modern, abstract look which not only appealed to other symbolist  artists and writers of the time, but also led to him being acknowledged as an avant-garde artist from the mid to late 1800s.

He was keenly interested in supporting a younger generation of artists, and although his work is not so well know today, Puvis de Chavannes was a key influence on many artists including Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse.

He was also a leading member and one time President of the  Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, which  aimed to create a Salon that was more selective, prestigious and noticeably more modern than  the Paris Salon.

His painting Hope, from 1872, was his response to the Franco-Prussian war – and the style and theme of this painting can be seen in the work of a number of later painters.

Purvis De Chavannes, Hope, 1872
Purvis De Chavannes, Hope, 1872

 

Pierre – Cécile Puvis (1824- 1898) was born at Lyon in France.  He later  added  ‘de Chevannes’  to his surname, which originated from his  aristocrat forebears in Burgundy. Independently wealthy, he was able to pursue art without relying on patronage^.

Whilst his contemporaries were Édouard Manet and realist Gustave Courbet, Puvis was more interested in Classicism,  in keeping with academic traditions of the Paris Salon. His subject matter was imbued with religious themes, allegories, mythologies and historical events.

Puvis’ formal training during the late 1840s was limited to study trips to Italy and shortlived work in the studios of  Henry Scheffer, Delacroix and Couture.  He also found inspiration in Romantic artist Théodore Chassériau. Preferring to work alone,  he acquired a large studio near the Gare de Lyon and attended anatomy classes at the Académie des Beaux Arts.

Initially Puvis was most interested in painting grand, public paintings which be began exhibiting at the Paris Salon from 1859 onwards. (After achieving public recognition,  he served on Salon juries.)

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Between Art and Nature, ca. 1890–95
Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Between Art and Nature, ca. 1890–95

He was particularly interested in Commissions from the French government and is now mostly remembered for the huge canvases and murals he painted for the walls of city halls and other public buildings in Paris such as the Panthéon, the Sorbonne, and the Hôtel de Ville, as well as buildings in other parts of France and in the USA.

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, murals in Boston Public Library
Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, murals in Boston Public Library

 

His style developed from painting these large works, and he is known for simplified forms, flatness of the picture surface, rhythmic line, and the use of non-naturalistic and muted colours to evoke mood.

Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Death and the Maidens, 1872 (sketch)
Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, Death and the Maidens, 1872 (sketch)

As a result, the figures in his paintings seem to be wrapped in an aura of  mystery, as though they belong in a private world of dreams or visions – which is why they are considered to be part of the symbolist style, although Puvis didn’t identify himself as with Symbolist painter. Noneless, he was considered by a younger generation of artists, such as Gauguin, as a leader of the Symbolist movement.

His style can be seen not only in works by Gauguin, but also in Picasso’s paintings from his Pink and Blue period, works by Matisse such as The Joy of Life, 1906, and many other artists who followed.

Hope, 1872

Puvis de Chavannes was deeply affected by the Franco-Prussian war and Paris Commune (1870-71)  and he produced several artworks related to the conflict and deprivation brought about as a result of the war.

Throughout his career, he  had frequently aimed to adapt allegory in modern society to his art, as means to express concepts and  abstract principles in a human form, particularly  in his  mural commissions, and he did this again in his paintings in response to the conflict. 

In particular, in 1872 he exhibited Hope at the Salon (now in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore). The Musée d’Orsay has a smaller version, also painted between 1871 and 1872. In the larger painting, Puvis portrays Hope as a naked girl sitting on a burial mound covered with white drapery. Behind her, a desolate landscape with the ruins of a building and the makeshift crosses of improvised cemeteries evoke the recent war. Dark clouds can be seen in the distance, but are breaking up into a softer hue. Other elements in the painting point to a new era, full of promise. The olive branch in the young woman’s hand symbolises the nation’s recovery from war as does the new growth of flowers from the rocky outcrops, while the white in the dress/drapery suggest the return of lightness.

 

However, the lack of any historical detail gives the painting a universal sense of symbolism, so that it could apply to Hope in a variety of contexts. The simplified composition of the work, the use of matte colours and the sense of rhythm are very characteristic of his style.

Paul Gauguin had a reproduction of this painting in Tahiti and it figures in his Still Life with Hope, painted in 1901. As well the subject in his painting Te Aa No Areois from 1892 is seated in a similar fashion to the model in Hope.

Puvis de Chavannes’s Hope was also the inspiration for two later works, painted after the first World War.

In 1923, Pablo Picasso painted Woman in White.  In this painting, his 20th century post-war allegory of hope is less obvious than in the painting by Puvis de Chavannes, as he omits the laurel branch and crosses, and the figure is in a more relaxed pose.

Pablo Picasso, Woman in White, 1923
Pablo Picasso, Woman in White, 1923

It’s been suggested by Kenneth Silver^^ that Picasso presents his figure of hope as a general symbol of cultural endurance and women’s fertility (with maternité  (motherhood) themes being popular with avante-garde painters at the time).

Romaine Brooks, Self Portrait, 1923
Romaine Brooks, Self Portrait, 1923

Romain Brooks’s Self Portrait, painted in the same year as Picasso’s Woman in White, also appears to be a more modern take on Hope, with the foreground placement of a silhouetted woman towering over a distant landscape, the distinctive horizontals in the painting, the general atmospheric effects and the shape and placement of the large ruined building on the right. Brooks, however, most likely had a different theme in mind than either Puvis or Picasso. It is more likely that she was representing hope a new set of post – war possibilities for women, beyond maternité.

Natalie Barney^^^ commented that that Brooks was seeking to explore a range of modern types of women, including a new post-war single woman who rejected motherhood for masculine attire and her own career – a highly controversial theme for the time.

^ Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010

^ ^Kenneth Silver, Esprit de Corps, The Art of the Parisian Avante-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1924, 1989

^^ ^Bridget Elliott, Deconsecrating Modernism: Allegories of Regeneration in Brooks and Picasso, in The Modern Woman Revisited: Paris Between the Wars, 2003 


This blog is just a short excerpt from my art history e-course, Introduction to Modern European Art  which is designed for adult learners and students of art history. 

This interactive program covers the period from Romanticism right through to Abstract Art, with sections on the Bauhaus and School of Paris,  key Paris exhibitions, both favourite and less well known artists and their work, and information about colour theory and key art terms. Lots of interesting stories, videos and opportunities to undertake exercises throughout the program.

You’ll also find many French works on paper and beautiful fashion plates from the early 1900s by visiting the gallery.


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