1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre Cécile

PUVIS DE CHAVANNES, PIERRE CÉCILE (1824-1898), French painter, was born at Lyons on the 14th of December 1824. His father was a mining engineer, the descendant of an old family of Burgundy. Pierre Puvis was educated at the Lyons College and at the Lycée Henri IV. in Paris, and was intended to follow his father's profession when a serious illness interrupted his studies. A journey to Italy opened his mind to fresh ideas, and on his return to France he announced his intention of becoming a painter, and went to study first under Henri Scheffer, and then under Couture. On leaving this master in 1852 he established himself in a studio in the Place Pigalle (which he did not give up till 1897), and there organized a sort of academy for a group of fellow students who wished to work from the living model. Puvis first exhibited in the Salon of 1850 a “Pietà,” and in the same year he painted “Mademoiselle de Sombreuil Drinking a Glass of Blood to Save her Father,” and “Jean Cavalier by his Mother's Deathbed,” besides an “Ecce Homo,” now in the church of Champagnat (Saône-et-Loire). In 1852 and in the two following years Puvis's pictures were rejected by the Salon, and were sent to a private exhibition in the Galeries Bonne Nouvelle. The public laughed at his work as loudly as at that of Courbet, but the young painter was none the less warmly defended by Théophile Gautier and Théodore de Banville. For nine years Puvis was excluded from the Salons. In 1857 he had painted a “Martyrdom of St Sebastian,” “Meditation,” “Village Firemen,” “Julie,” “Herodias,” and “Saint Camilla” — compositions showing a great variety of impulse, still undecided in style and reflecting the influence of the Italian masters as well as of Delacroix and Couture. In 1859 Puvis reappeared in the Salon with the “Return from Hunting” (now in the Marseilles Gallery). But not till he produced “Peace” and “War” did he really impress his critics, inaugurating a vast series of decorative paintings. For these two works a second-class medal was awarded to him, and the state offered to purchase the “Peace.” Puvis, not choosing to part the pair, made a gift of “War” to the state. He then set to work again, and in 1864 exhibited “Autumn” and “Sleep,” but found no purchasers. One of these pictures is now in the Lyons Museum, and the other at Lille. “Peace” and “War” were placed in the great gallery of the museum at Amiens, where Puvis completed their effect by painting four panels — a “Standard-Bearer,” “Woman Weeping over the Ruins of her Home,” a “Reaper,” and a “Woman Spinning.” These works were so much admired that further decorations were ordered for the same building, and the artist presented to the city of Amiens “Labour” and “Repose,” for which the municipality could not afford to pay. At their request Puvis undertook another work, intended for the upper landing of the staircase, and in 1865 a composition entitled “Ave Picardia Nutrix,” allegorical of the fertility of the province, was added to the collection. In 1879 the city wished to complete the decoration of the building, and the painter, again at his own expense, executed the cartoon of “Ludus pro patria,” exhibited in the Salon of 1881 and purchased by the state, which at the same time gave him a commission for the finished work. While toiling at these large works, Puvis de Chavannes rested himself by painting easel pictures. To the salon of 1870 he had sent a picture called “Harvest;” the “Beheading of John the Baptist” figured in the Great Exhibition of 1889; then followed “Hope” (1872), the “Family of Fisher-Folk” (1875), and “Women on the Seashore” (1879). But these canvases, however interesting, are not to be named by the side of his grand decorative works. Two paintings in the Palais Longchamp at Marseilles, ordered in 1867, represent “Marseilles as a Greek Colony” and “Marseilles, the Emporium of the East.” After these, Puvis executed for the town-hall of Poitiers two decorative paintings of historical subjects: “Radegund,” and “Charles Martel.” The Panthéon in Paris also possesses a decorative work of great interest by this painter: “The Life of Saint Geneviève,” treated in three panels. In 1876 the Department of Fine Arts in Paris gave the artist a commission to paint “Saint Geneviève giving Food to Paris” and “Saint Geneviève watching over Sleeping Paris,” in which he gave to the saint the features of Princess Cantacuzene, his wife, who died not long before he did. At the time of his death — on the 24th of October 1898 — the work was almost finished. After completing the first paintings in the Panthéon, which occupied him for three years and eight months, Puvis de Chavannes undertook to paint the staircase leading to the gallery of fine arts in the Lyons Museum, and took for his subjects the “Vision of the Antique,” a procession of youths on horseback, which a female figure standing on a knoll points out to Pheidias; the “Sacred Grove”; and two allegorical figures of “The Rhône” and “The Saône.” It was in the same mood of inspiration by the antique that he painted the hemicycle at the Sorbonne, an allegory of “Science, Art, and Letters,” a work of great extent, for which he was paid 35,000 francs (£1400). At the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, again, Puvis decorated the grand staircase and the first reception-room. These works employed him from 1889 till 1893. In the reception-room he painted two panels, “Winter” and “Summer”; the mural paintings on the staircase, which had previously been placed in the hands of Baudry and of Delaunay, are devoted to the glory of the attributes of the city of Paris. On the ceiling we see Victor Hugo offering his lyre to the city of Paris. The pictures in the Rouen Museum (1890-1892) show a different vein, and the artist's power of conceiving and setting forth a plastic scheme enabling him to decorate a public building with beautiful human figures and the finest lines of landscape. We see here toilers raising a colossal monolith, part of some ancient monument, to add it to other architectural pieces; then the busy scene of a pottery; and finally artists painting in the open air. Puvis, as a rule, adhered to the presentment of the nude or of the lightest drapery; here, however, in response to some critical remarks, he has clad his figures exclusively in modern dress. After prolonged negotiations, begun so early as in 1891, with the trustees of the Boston Library, U.S.A., Puvis de Chavannes accepted a commission to paint nine large panels for that building, to be inserted in separate compartments, three facing the door, three to the right and three to the left. These pictures, begun in 1895, were finished in 1898. In these works of his latest period Puvis de Chavannes soars boldly above realistic vision. In the figures which people the walls with poetic images he endeavours to achieve originality of the embodying forms, and at the same time a plastic expression of ideas born of a mind whose conceptions grew ever loftier, while yet the artist would not abandon the severe study of nature. Such works as the great paintings at Amiens, Rouen, Marseilles, the Panthéon, the Sorbonne, and the Hôtel de Ville are among the most important productions of French art in the 19th century. Puvis de Chavannes was president of the National Society of Fine Arts (the New Salon). His principal pupils and followers are Ary Renan (d. 1900), Baudouin, J. F. Auburtin and Cottet.

See A. Michel, “Exposition de M. Puvis de Chavannes,” Gazette des beaux-arts (1888); Marius Vachon, Puvis de Chavannes (1900); J. Buisson, “Puvis de Chavannes, Souvenirs Intimes,” Gazette des beaux-arts (1899).

(H. Fr.)