by Roderick Conway Morris

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Cleveland Museum of Art
Summer by Puvis de Chavannes, 1891

In Arcadian vision, the seeds of modern art

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 23 February 2002


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was unusual in the annals of commercially successful artists because he had substantial independent means and so could suit himself as to what and how he painted. Yet he made his name with major institutional commissions, decorating public buildings, his declared credo being that 'the true role of painting is to animate walls.'

Puvis was born into a prosperous bourgeois family in Lyon in 1824, but instead of following a conventional profession, he opted to become an artist. Two visits in the 1840s to Italy, where he was impressed by ancient Roman art and the Italian 'primitives,' especially Giotto, were decisive in resolving him on this course. He was mainly self-taught and by no means found instant recognition. His pictures were rejected by the Paris Salon, and when they were finally exhibited, they drew hostile criticism. His breakthrough came in 1861, when the State bought one of a pair of complimentary panels, 'Peace' and 'War,' for the Amiens Museum. The purchasers chose 'Peace,' and Puvis threw in 'War,' for nothing.

Subsequent commissions included extensive decorative schemes for the Hotel de Ville, the Pantheon and the Sorbonne in Paris, and the Boston Public Library, and he became one of the most famous artists of his day.

Yet the majority of even regular gallery-goers, on encountering the title of Palazzo Grassi's latest show, 'From Puvis de Chavannes to Matisse and Picasso: Toward Modern Art,' could be forgiven for scratching their heads and saying 'Puvis de Who?'

However, the thesis of this exhibition, curated by Serge Lemoine, director of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, is that Puvis was the most influential single 19th-century French figurative artist, and that he played an absolutely crucial part in forming 20th-century modern art.

This argument is not new in academic circles and has been gathering force in recent years. But this is the first time anyone has attempted to lay out the gamut of visual evidence -- the show contains more than 200 paintings, drawings and sculptures from more than 80 collections in 20 countries -- on such a grand scale.

The resulting display, in which established icons of modern art, from Cezanne, Seurat and Gauguin to Matisse, Picasso and Leger, rub shoulders with a host of lesser-known artists, who are nonetheless the authors of some superb works, is both informative and immensely enjoyable.

Puvis prized directness, simplicity and instant readability, and was admired by a wide range of his contemporary artists for these very qualities.

In this respect the exhibition is a very Puvisian enterprise, in that the visitor can easily follow the argument by looking at the works and reading the succinct panels, which include apt contemporary quotations. Meanwhile, the catalogue provides much additional illustration and documentation on the impact of Puvis's 'oeuvre.'

Given that Puvis's primary legacy rests in his large murals, which remain in situ, he is at something of a disadvantage here, where only sketches for these mammoth works and easel paintings can be shown.

But the characteristics of his style -- the nude or semi-draped figures, seen from different angles and arranged almost like statues against flat landscapes, both the figures and landscapes being rendered in bland, matte, often almost etiolated colors -- are clearly presented.

These are not the kind of canvases that would normally stop today's museum visitor in his or her tracks.

But the subsequent rooms give ample evidence that numerous technically more accomplished, in many ways more imaginative and daring artists were once powerfully affected by Puvis's compositions.

One aspect of their charm both for artists and the public at large lay in the tranquil Arcadian vision they encapsulated, a world not so much lost as one that had never really existed, but which must have seemed the perfect antidote to the industrial revolution and the general uglification of the environment. These pictures' almost naive, unfinished quality also lent them a freshness that contrasted with the slicker execution and polish of academic painting.

But their primary appeal to other artists resided perhaps in their back-to-basics arrangement of the human figure in uncluttered surroundings, which offered a jumping-off point for practitioners of very different levels of expertise and wildly various temperaments.

By the time Puvis was receiving serious attention, what came to be called Impressionism was revolutionizing landscape painting, but this had little to offer artists more interested in the human figure, and was even leading to a neglect of this traditional discipline -- as Matisse came to believe.

Puvis himself was far from opposed to the Impressionists, and he vigorously defended their efforts, despite the fact that they contrasted dramatically with his own vision and working practices. He was, after all, an indoor artist par excellence and, as Ann Dumas amusingly records in the catalogue, when it came to landscape both Puvis and Degas found common inspiration in dimly recollected images glimpsed from the windows of railway carriages rolling through the French countryside.

Since Paris was then a mecca for artists from countries all over Europe and beyond, these visitors were soon exposed to Puvis's much talked about works and even came expressly to see them. By this means Puvis's gospel spread to Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia and America, showing a remarkable ability to adapt to local environments.

The country least affected was England, which had already produced its own homegrown reactions, notably among the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers, to what was perceived as oversophistication and insincerity in art and the soullessness of the industrial age, which could be countered by a return to the aesthetics of the middle ages and the early Italian Renaissance.

It was above all, though not exclusively, through Matisse and Picasso that the Puvisian torch was carried forward into the 20th century. Picasso played with multiple permutations based on his ideas. One of the most entertaining is his 'Bathers Watching an Airplane' of 1920, a tongue-in-cheek homage to Puvis's 'Summer' of 1891.

And, in retrospect at least, the intrusion, high in the sky, of the infernal machine, no bigger than some sinister black bird of the kind that would have filled with dread the Roman augurs of old, seems significant. For it signals both the waning of the age of Puvis's innocent pastoral idylls and of the seductive spell he had cast for decades on so many of his fellow artists.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024