Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
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French painter, b. at Lyons, 14 Dec., 1824; d. at Paris, 24 Oct., 1898. Through his father Puvis was Burgundian — "Burgundian salt ", says the proverb, that is the strongest French race, which produced such men as Bossuet, Buffon, and Lamartine. His Lyonnaise idealism, which he inherited through his mother, never allowed him to lose the sense of the real, his dreams were always possible and probable. His vocation was slow in manifesting itself. His parents intended him for the Ecole Polytechnique, and he was twenty-three years old when after his return from a first journey to Italy he showed the inclination to paint. Determining to adopt art as a profession, he studied for a year without much profit in the studio of Henry Scheffer, the brother of Ary, and afterwards entered those of Delacroix and Couture. Another sojourn in Italy, where he remained a year, fixed his ideas and determined his creed. He returned convinced of the artistic dignity and great eminence of decorative painting. The art of the great Italian masters, their manner of expressing in large compositions stamped with simplicity, the marvellous thoughts and the beliefs common to a period or a people, was thenceforth the object which he set about realizing for his contemporaries. Without being positively Christian his inspiration preserves a clearly spiritual character. In the midst of the materialistic invasion of the second half of the nineteenth century Puvis (with Eugène Carrière ) was the noblest champion of religious art in France. As a painter his originality freed him from early influences and tendencies. In a sense he was really self-taught. While admiring Delacroix, he detested the Romantic anarchy, with its disordered passions, and despised academic conventions, the timid taste and feeble ideas of the so-styled classicals. If he was in sympathy with any section of the school, it was doubtless with the small group of landscape painters. In view of the importance with which he endowed landscape, the atmosphere which he instils into his frescoes, his liking for familiar horizons and lowly countrysides, together with his way of depicting and ennobling them, it seems evident that Puvis studied Corot. Finally in the paintings of Théodore Chassériau the young artist found an ideal similar to his own, a kindred spirit and a model for his Amiens pictures.
Puvis's first "Salon" was a "Pietà" exhibited in 1852, but he was constantly rejected for some years afterwards. His already remarkable pictures, such as his "Salome" or his "Julia", shocked the public by a determined absence of shadows (as in mosaics ) and by an hieratic and Byzantine strangeness. At the Salon of 1859 he showed a "Return from the Hunt" (Museum of Marseilles ), which is a striking work of youthful, heroic, barbarous movement. A great decorative talent became more and more evident in these stray works. Then came the opportunity to paint a hall for a private citizen: "At last", said the artist, "I have water to swim in." Henceforth he forced himself to that regimen of work which he observed all his life, the regimen of a Carthusian or cenobite in art; one meal a day at about seven in the evening, two rapid walks lasting an hour before and after work between his dwelling at Montmartre and his studio at Neuilly, sessions of nine or ten hours of incessant work, in the evening, reading, drawing, music, and conversation with his friends. Several journeys interrupted this regular life.
It is not known to whom the merit belongs of having singled out the young painter and appointed him to the work which was his true vocation, nor who commissioned him to paint the frescoes of the staircase in the museum of Amiens, but it was through this chance that Puvis undertook the work which became his true sphere, that of monumental painting. In 1861 appeared "War" and "Peace"; in 1863 "Work" and "Rest", in 1865 these were completed by a new work "Ave Picardia Nutrix". There is nothing simpler or nobler than these paintings. They are considered by more than one authority his best work, and in any case are the manifestation of a singularly new art. He showed an admirable faculty for generalization, a power of expressing life in universal features without cold allegories or romantic disturbances, while retaining a rustic realism and accent. But because of its very novelty, its mural simplicity, this new and vigorous work created astonishment and scandal, with which the artist had to contend for many years. Still sharper criticisms were aroused by his "Autumn", "Sleep", "Harvest" (1870), and especially by the "Poor Sinner" (Salon of 1875), in which the touching archaism had the effect of a challenge. Puvis was accused of not knowing how to paint or draw. His ideas and projects seemed incomprehensible and like a defiance of public taste. There was no attempt to understand the methods of synthesis and simplification due to the particular circumstances of fresco, these pieces being persistently regarded from the same standpoint as the other Salon pictures. The result was a prolonged misunderstanding lasting fifteen years, during which much ink was wasted. Finally the intelligent initiative of the Marquis de Cheunevidères, the best director of the fine arts France has ever had, afforded the unjustly criticised painter the opportunity for a decisive triumph. This was in connexion with the paintings of the "Childhood of St. Genevieve" (1876-8), in the ancient church of that name, now the Pantheon. All that had been misunderstood at the Salon became clear here, all that, seen at close range amid factitious surroundings, had seemed a defect vanished and acquired a meaning in the perfect accord of the work with the monument. For the first time it was perceived that decoration had its own laws and that in this light each of the artist's apparent weaknesses became a charm and a necessity. Thenceforth the master held a unique position in the French school. Without the title he was a sort of painter laureate. During his last twenty years each of his successive works increased his henceforth undisputed reputation ; they were "Ludus pro patria" (1880-2), for the Museum of Amiens ; "Doux pays" (1882), for M. Leon Bonnat; for the Lyons Museum, the "Sacred Wood Dear to the Arts and Muses" (1884) with the "Antique Vision", "Christian Inspiration", the "Saône" and the "Rhône" (1886); "Inter artes et naturam" (Rouen Museum); "Summer", "Winter", "Victor Hugo Presenting his Lyre to Paris ", for the Paris Hôtel de Ville (1893-5), and his last pictures, two new scenes from the legend of St. Genevieve : "St. Genevieve Revictualling the Parisians" (1897) and "St. Genevieve Watching over Paris" (1898). After an interval of twenty years this last picture met with the same popularity as that which had welcomed the first scene of the "Childhood". It is a sublime picture, showing a single figure, in a monastic costume, standing erect and motionless in the night, watching over the blue roofs of the sleeping city.
During this last portion of his life the master exercised a wholly new jurisdiction over art; without being the leader of a school, or even strictly speaking having disciples, his word was law. To him the Government had recourse on solemn occasions, for instance the decoration of the vast and grandiose hemicycle of the new Sorbonne (1887-9). Large cities, such as Paris, Lyons, Rouen, Bordeaux, Marseilles, followed the example of Amiens, and when Boston (U.S.A.) wished to decorate the monumental staircase of its library it was Puvis de Chavannes who was chosen to execute that great work (1896). All these works breathe the same love of noble ideas, the same confidence in the higher destinies and ideals of the human race ; it may even be said that what the theological painters of the Middle Ages wrought in the Spanish Chapel and what Raphael did for the Renaissance in the Camera della Segnatura, Puvis did in our era. He wrought his "Parnassus" and his "School of Athens ", different it is true from those of old, but equally beautiful and sacred. He never lacked clear, ingenious and definite symbols for the plastic expression of general ideas. He upheld the rights of the ideal in the modern world, making it known and detaching it from dreams, art, and poetry. He always had an unshakable faith in the holiness of the spiritual side of humanity and in the supreme importance of continuous search, aspiration, and unrest which form the moral capital of our race. As an artist he did much to maintain religion among men. After the death of Meissonier (1894), Puvis was elected by acclamation to the presidency of the National Society of French Artists. He was commander of the Legion of Honour. The moral dignity and the rectitude of his character and his life increased the respect paid to the artist and thinker. He married the Princess Marie Cantacuzene whom he had met in Chassériau's studio. He survived her by only a few months. His last work, the lovely "Watch of St. Genevieve ", reproduces her features and consecrates the memory of that charming companion. It is perhaps this sorrow mingled with an immortal hope which imparts to this supreme work a haunting poetry and unforgettable beauty. (See PARIS, coloured plate.)
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