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Title: Puvis de Chavannes - Masterpieces in Colour Series
Author: Crastre, François
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Puvis de Chavannes - Masterpieces in Colour Series" ***

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    REYNOLDS            RUBENS
    GREUZE              BURNE-JONES
    TURNER              LE BRUN
    ROMNEY              MILLET
    BELLINI             SARGENT
    ROSSETTI            MEMLING
    RAPHAEL             FRAGONARD
    LEIGHTON            DÜRER
    TITIAN              HOGARTH
    MILLAIS             WATTEAU
    LUINI               MURILLO
    FRANZ HALS          WATTS


    GEROME              BOUCHER
    VERONESE            PERUGINO
              VAN EYCK

PARIS. Frontispiece

(In the Panthéon, Paris)

This composition, so great in its simplicity and so beautiful in
execution, is the last work of the great artist. The model who posed for
the saint watching over the city was Puvis de Chavannes' own wife. Both
he and she died very shortly after its completion.]

    de Chavannes


    [Illustration: IN SEMPITERNUM.]


    COPYRIGHT, 1912, BY

    [Illustration: April 1912]



    Introduction                                            11

    The First Years                                         16

    The Glorious Years                                      31

    The Last Years                                          53

    The Landscape Painter                                   66


       I. Saint Genevieve keeping Watch over
            sleeping Paris                        Frontispiece
              In the Panthéon, Paris

      II. The Piety of Saint Genevieve                      14
              In the Panthéon, Paris

     III. The Poor Fisherman                                24
              In the Musée de Luxembourg, Paris

      IV. Ludus pro Patria                                  34
              In the Museum, Amiens

       V. Repose                                            40
              In the Museum, Amiens

      VI. The Sacred Wood dear to the Arts and the Muses    50
              In the Museum, Amiens

     VII. Letters, Sciences, and Arts                       60
              In the Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne

    VIII. War                                               70
              In the Museum, Amiens



Glory does not dispense her favours to the deserving with an equal
bounty. Painters as well as authors often suffer from the caprices of
the inconstant goddess. While there are some who, guided by her
benevolent hand, attain the pinnacle of fortune at the first attempt
and almost without effort, other artists with a genius akin to that of
Millet live in a state bordering upon penury and die in destitution.
Renown seeks them out later, much too late, and tardy laurels flower
only upon their tomb.

Puvis de Chavannes for a long time fared scarcely better than these
illustrious mendicants of art. He experienced the bitter pangs of
injustice, the hostility of ignorance, the discouragement of finding
himself misunderstood. If he was spared the extreme distress of Millet,
it was solely because he was the more fortunate of the two in possessing
a small private income. But nothing can crush the spirit of the born
artist; neither contempt nor ridicule can hold him back. Puvis de
Chavannes was endowed with a valiant and a tenacious spirit. Entrenched
within the loftiness of his artistic ideal, as within a tower of bronze,
he was steadfastly scornful of critics, affecting not to hear them; and
never would he consent to disarm them by concessions that in his eyes
would have seemed dishonourable. Yet this rare probity brought its
own reward. The great painter attained the joy of seeing himself at
last understood, and not only understood but admired during his
life-time. He must even have derived an ironic satisfaction from
counting among his warmest adherents certain ones who had formerly been
conspicuous as his most violent detractors.


(In the Panthéon, Paris)

In this composition, exceptionally fine in feeling, Puvis de Chavannes
shows how much importance he attached to landscape, which was the
natural setting of his paintings, and which he treated with as much care
as his personages themselves.]

Today the glory of Puvis de Chavannes shines forth in uncontested
splendour. No one dreams of comparing him with any of his
contemporaries, because his art reveals no kinship with that of any one
of them. He is recognized as the successor and the equal of the great
fresco painters of the Italian Renaissance. Even to these he owes
nothing, having borrowed nothing from them. But he shares with them his
passionate love of truth, his nobility of inspiration and sincerity of
execution. There are no longer insinuating and derisory shakings of the
head in the presence of his works. One must be devoid of soul in order
not to sense their beauty. Even the ignorant, in the presence of this
form of art which they do not understand, gaze upon it with respectful
wonder, as upon something very great, the content of which they fail to
make out, although they realize its power from the inner emotion they

"My dear boy," wrote Puvis de Chavannes to one of his pupils, "direct
your soul compass-like, towards some work of beauty; that is the way to
achieve it in its entirety."

It is because he directed his own soul, compass-like, only towards works
of a noble and pure beauty, surrendering himself with all the ardour of
his impetuous and vibrant nature, that Puvis de Chavannes has taken his
place as one of the noblest figures, not only in contemporary painting,
but also in the painting of all times.


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was born at Lyons, December 14, 1824. His
parents were in affluent circumstances and were connected with one of
the old Burgundian families. His father pursued the vocation of chief
engineer of mines, at Lyons. In the registry of births, in which the
new-born child was entered, the father is designated simply by the name
of Marie-Julien-César Puvis. The honourable title of "de Chavannes,"
claimed later and with good right by the family, was confirmed to him
by a decree of the Court of Lyons, bearing date of May 20, 1859.

Young Puvis de Chavannes was sent, first to the Lycée at Lyons, later to
the Lycée Henri IV, at Paris. But nothing either in the boy's tastes or
in his aptitudes gave any hint of his future vocation; he showed no
special inclination for drawing, nor even for art in general. Son of a
mining engineer, he applied himself naturally to the exact sciences; and
he would probably have donned the uniform of a polytechnic student, had
it not been for an illness which the family looked upon as most
unfortunate, but which posterity regards as providential. The young man
was forced to interrupt his studies and bid good-bye to mathematics. Two
years later he took a trip to Italy, in the company of a young married
couple. In true tourist fashion he made the rounds of museums and
churches; he conscientiously inspected the great masterpieces in which
the peninsula abounds; but, by his own admission, he brought back no
real profit from his travels. They were not, however, entirely futile,
since they awakened in him the desire to become a painter. Upon
returning to France he announced his determination to his family, and
having won their consent, entered the studio of Henri Scheffer, brother
of Ary Scheffer.

Italy, seen too hastily, had taught Puvis de Chavannes nothing: the
studio hardly served him to better purpose. But, through contact with
Henri Scheffer, he acquired a respect not only for art but for the
conception which each one must form of it for himself. The young
neophyte, who was destined in later years to be himself a living example
of fidelity to an ideal, remained forever thankful to the author of
_Charlotte Corday_ for having imbued him with this noble sentiment. He
always retained of him, throughout life, an affectionate and grateful

Scheffer's paintings, however, were far from satisfying his personal
conception of art. Before very long he left his studio and betook
himself to that of Delacroix. The latter admitted him readily; but the
new pupil was not slow in discovering that here again he was out of his
element. The great romantic painter, although an admirable artist, was a
mediocre instructor. He alone, for that matter, could risk the violent
colour schemes with which he covered his canvases; his pupils succeeded
only in accentuating a debauch of thick-spread pigments by coupling
together tones that cried aloud from the walls of the studio. The
instinct of harmony and of proportion which was already awakening in
Puvis de Chavannes, revolted against these audacities: he found himself
ill at ease in the midst of this orgy of colour. It was after no such
fashion that nature appeared to his eyes. He had about made up his mind
to leave the studio of Delacroix when the latter, angered by criticisms
and piqued at seeing the attendance falling off, decided to close his

It was at this time that young Puvis entered the studio of Couture.
There again his stay was brief, and we find in his work few traces of
the lessons there received. Once again it was only the conventional and
artificial that were held up as object lessons for that young soul
enamoured of the truth, for those wide-opened eyes that saw nature
precisely as she is, and not under the tinsel glitter of fantasy under
which the studio of the period draped her. It followed that he learned
nothing from that school; nevertheless, he did not disown it. In the
annual Salon Catalogue, Puvis de Chavannes continued to proclaim himself
a pupil of Scheffer and of Couture.

Once again the young painter found himself without a master, yet still
eager to learn and as yet equipped with only a mediocre and highly
defective rudimentary training. Convinced that he would never obtain the
right start in any of the studios of the French capital, he determined,
in company of one of his friends, Beauderon de Vermeron, to go in search
of definite guidance, back to that same Italy which he had visited the
first time with such small profit. This time he studied all the periods,
all the schools, all the methods of Italian painting; he visited both
Rome and Florence; and yet all his sympathies, as he himself declared,
went out instinctively to the Venetian school which had produced Titian,
Tintoretto, and, greatest of all, Veronese, inimitable prince of fresco
and of decoration.

Returning to Paris, Puvis de Chavannes no longer dreamed of soliciting
the guidance of any school; henceforth he was to pursue his own path,
to give heed only to his own temperament, to draw his inspiration only
from nature herself. In the Place Pigalle he hired a studio, the same
which he was destined to occupy for forty-four years, and which he
quitted only two years before his death. Later on he possessed another,
at Neuilly, in which to work upon his larger compositions, since there
would not have been space enough for them in the Montmartre studio.
Whatever the weather, through cold and through heat, Puvis de Chavannes
could be seen, for more than thirty years, making his way on foot, with
long, rapid strides, from the Place Pigalle to Neuilly or in the reverse
direction. This daily promenade grew to be a necessity; it was the sole
recreation of this painter so enslaved by his art that in a certain
sense he might be called a Benedictine of painting.

In 1852, the date when his real career began, Puvis de Chavannes was
twenty-eight years of age. He was at this time a handsome young fellow,
tall of stature and large of frame, quick-witted, jovial and
enthusiastic, and combining the whole-souled simplicity of the artist
with the polished manners of a man of the world, inherited from his
father. Many people conceive of Puvis de Chavannes as melancholy and
sombre. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was fond of all the
joys of living, friendly gatherings, abundant good cheer. But what he
prized above all, thanks to the perfect balance of his physique, was the
ability to apply his robust health to incessant work, which he pursued
without intermission up to the day of his death.

In 1850, Puvis de Chavannes made his début by sending to the Salon a
_Pietà_, which was accepted. His joy was great, for it was the joy of
the first step. Later on, his satisfaction in that picture diminished.
It had certain defects, and gave evidence of inexperience, which the
young painter was quick to perceive. That same year he painted _Jean
Cavalier at the bed-side of his Mother_, and an _Ecce Homo_, bold in
execution and violent in tone.


(In the Musée de Luxembourg, Paris)

No one else, excepting Millet, had the skill to render with so much
truth the physical and moral distress of the unfortunate. This resigned
fisherman, bending his back under the inclement sky, is a veritable
masterpiece, both in execution and in observation.]

In 1852, the pictures which he submitted to the Salon were rejected by
the jury, and this ostracism continued for several years. It was an
epoch when every effort towards artistic independence was officially and
systematically repressed. The young artist was not alone in
disfavour; he shared it with a number of his friends, some of whom were
already famous, or at least well known. Equally with himself, Courbet,
Dupré, Barye, Rousseau, Millet, Troyon, Corot, Diaz and Delacroix found
themselves ejected from the doors of the temple. In the eyes of the
Academy, they were all of them madmen or revolutionaries; for his part,
he was treated with less honour: he was regarded as a maniac of no
importance. His exclusion lasted for nine years, during which the
critics and the public united in making him the target for their

Puvis de Chavannes was always keenly sensitive to criticism; it cut him
to the quick, but he prided himself on showing no outward sign. He
repaid it by affecting the most complete disdain. When anyone in his
presence bestowed only a qualified praise on one of his works, his lips
would betray his scorn in a faint crease, which Rodin, another
misunderstood giant, has admirably caught in his buste of the painter.
As it happened, however, Puvis de Chavannes was rarely fortunate in
having the encouragement and support of such an admirable companion as
the Princess Cantacuzène. That splendid woman, of exceptional
intelligence and distinction, enjoyed art and understood it; she fell in
love with Puvis de Chavannes and became his wife. "Whatever I am and
whatever I have done," wrote the painter, "is all due to her."
Throughout more than forty years, she filled the rôle of beneficent
genius to the artist, the Egeria whose voice he never failed to heed.
Puvis de Chavannes had worshipped faithfully at her shrine; and when she
died, he felt that the term of his own life had reached its end. He
survived her scarcely more than a few months.

Under the shelter of her far-sighted affection, the artist closed his
ears to hostile comments, and followed his bent, without trying to
modify his manner of seeing and feeling nature. None the less, the
paintings of this period are far from perfect; a certain constraint is
apparent in them, due to inexperience and also to some lingering
influence either of his studio training or of Italy. _The Martyrdom of
St. Sebastian_, _The Village Firemen_, _Meditation_, _Herodiade_,
_Julie_, _Saint Camilla at the_ _bedside of a dying man_, while they
reveal some very genuine personal qualities, are none the less somewhat
reminiscent of the manner of Couture, by whom he seems to have been most
directly influenced.

His first real picture, the one which first marked and fixed for all
time the artist's personality, was _Peace_, now in the Museum at Amiens.
So much knowledge and so much harmony were displayed in this picture
that the jury simply did not dare reject it. What is more, it won for
its author a medal of the second class. He was not slow in giving it a
companion piece, in the shape of a painting entitled _War_, which is now
also at Amiens.

In the first of these pictures, the one consecrated to the pleasures of
_Peace_, everything seems quite academic, the poses, the composition,
the countenances: and yet, there is no stiffness, everything is vibrant,
alive, palpitating in a serene and luminous atmosphere. The artist has
herein magnificently demonstrated the truth of a phrase which he wrote
to Ary Renan, in the course of a trip which the latter took to Italy:
"Just as you yourself feel and have very well expressed, no study of
other artists' work can trammel one's originality." Neither the memory
of Italy nor the influence of Couture had prevented him from asserting
himself, and that, too, vigorously.

_War_ is, if anything, superior to _Peace_. The painter is here wholly
himself. There is no longer in his work any trace of outside influence.
And what vigour there is, what eloquence, in the simplicity of the
composition! Is there in existence a more admirable argument against war
and its horrors? Beside the corpse of a young warrior, a father and
mother are prostrated, voicing aloud their anguish; and meanwhile the
conquerors, approaching from the far horizon black with devastation and
slaughter, blow their victorious trumpets and urge their horses forward
towards the group of mourners.

From that moment, Puvis de Chavannes began to command attention. He was
discussed more acrimoniously, more passionately than ever; no one could
neglect him nor pretend not to have heard of him.

The government bought _Peace_, but refused to purchase _War_, in spite
of the fact that the two paintings were companion pieces. In order to
prevent them from being separated, the artist generously donated the
second picture.

In 1863 came a new series representing _Labour_ and _Rest_. Faithful to
his principles, the author gathers together on his canvas the entire
cycle of actions and ideas suggested by his subject.

In _Labour_ he has placed in the foreground a group of blacksmiths,
representing, in his eyes, the fully developed type of the worker,
because of the degree of their exertion, the vigour of their action.
While two of them stir the fire, the others, armed with heavy sledges,
strike alternate blows upon the anvil. At no great distance, some
carpenters are squaring the trunks of trees; beyond, on the plain, a
peasant can be seen, guiding his ploughshare through its furrow. In the
foreground there is also a woman, nursing a young child. The entire
cycle of human toil is glorified in this single painting.

_Repose_ shows us an old man seated, giving to the young folk grouped
around him wise counsel, drawn from his long experience. Nothing could
be more graceful than the relaxed postures of the different figures,
who, we feel, are listening with real attention.

Since these four pictures, _Peace_, _War_, _Labour_, _Repose_, were the
interpretation of general ideas, the artist could not give them any
precise setting, any local colour. The nude, which is employed for all
the figures, was his sole means of obtaining absolute truth.

Already at this period one perceives in Puvis an anxious endeavour to
sacrifice all the little easy methods of winning acclaim, in order to be
free to concern himself solely with the harmony of his subject as a
whole. Throughout his entire life, he was destined to have no greater
preoccupation than that of effacing himself completely, and forcing the
public, when in the presence of his work, to see nothing but the work
itself and to give not a thought to the painter.

During the year 1864, the results of Puvis de Chavannes' industry were
fairly abundant. At the Salon, he exhibited two very beautiful canvases,
_Autumn_ and _Sleep_.

The first of these two pictures is symbolic and represents the different
ages of life in the form of women of unequal years. One of them, her
pensive face already marked with lines, watches her companions gathering
flowers and fruit, symbols of youth.

This work, charming in composition, is now in the collection of the
Museum at Lyons.

_Sleep_, a large decorative composition, after the manner of _Peace_ and
_War_, is in the Museum at Lille.


All these works, acrimoniously discussed and unjustly attacked by the
critics, made the name of Puvis de Chavannes widely known without
augmenting his reputation. The general public, habituated to the
stereotyped, elaborate, ornate school, understood nothing of such
deceptive simplicity. His canvases would not sell. Even the government
had made no more purchases since its acquisition of _Peace_. It had even
refused to acquire _War_, when the artist offered it. As we have already
said, sooner than have the two pictures separated, Puvis made up his
mind to donate it.

Commissions failed to come in, and nothing afforded hope that this
condition of affairs was likely to change, when chance threw in the path
of Puvis de Chavannes a man whose providential intervention completely
transformed his destiny.

At about this epoch the city of Amiens had started to build a museum.
The architect of this enterprise, M. Diot, came to see Puvis de
Chavannes and said to him:

"I saw your paintings in the Salon of 1861, and was greatly pleased with
them. In the edifice which I am at present constructing, there are some
vast surfaces to be covered. Are your two pictures, _Peace_ and _War_,
still in your possession? I could find immediate use for them."

Puvis de Chavannes replied that the two paintings in question belonged
to the State. The city of Amiens immediately solicited the concession of
them, which was courteously granted.


(In the Museum, Amiens)

This great composition, of which the present plate gives only a
fragment, is numbered among the most beautiful productions of Puvis de
Chavannes, because of the harmony of its parts, the nobility of the
postures and the charm of its detail.]

The paintings were placed in the grand gallery on the first floor, where
they produced a most beautiful decorative effect. Puvis de Chavannes,
delighted at this unhoped-for good fortune, offered to complete the
decoration of the gallery, by painting the panels occupying the
spaces between the windows. The illumination is exceedingly bad, but
with infinite art the painter succeeded in harmonizing his compositions
with the atmosphere and light of the room. It should be noted further
that the subjects treated in the panels on the right gallery relate to
the picture of _War_, which faces them; they are a _Standard-Bearer_ and
a _Woman weeping over the ruins of her home_. The same holds true of the
painting consecrated to _Peace_, the corresponding panels being a
_Harvester_ and a _Woman spinning_.

Puvis de Chavannes considered himself fortunate in having two of his
works which he so greatly loved find a place in a museum. The
municipality of Amiens was none the less delighted in possessing them;
it gave proof of this by once more sending its municipal architect to
him on a special embassy:

"I need two more mural paintings to decorate the main staircase of the
museum. Do you happen to have what I need ready made, as you did the
other time?"

The architect was jesting. Puvis de Chavannes betook himself to a
corner of his studio, and unrolling two canvases, presented them to M.

"Here are what you want. These two pictures are of the same dimensions
as _Peace_ and _War_; they represent _Repose_ and _Labour_ and form part
of the same series. Will they serve your purpose?"

They served the architect's purpose to perfection. Unfortunately the
city of Amiens did not have the money to pay for them. The difficulty
was explained to the artist who, with his customary disinterestedness,
made a present of both the paintings. They were soon stretched in the
places for which they were intended, in a framework of fruits and
flowers, and produced an admirable effect. The municipality of Amiens
was so well satisfied with these paintings that it decided at the cost
of great sacrifices to commission Puvis de Chavannes to prepare a large
composition destined to occupy the entire upper panel of the staircase
on the side of the grand gallery. This panel was intersected by two

Puvis de Chavannes set to work immediately. In the Salon of 1865 he
exhibited his _Ave Picardia Nutrix_, destined for the Museum of Amiens.

The painting produced a veritable sensation. Even the unskilled in art
experienced an instinctive emotion in the presence of this important
canvas which they did not fully understand, but which they felt to be
sincere; as to the artists, they were obliged to acknowledge that the
painter whom they had scoffed and derided, and who had now produced the
_Picardia Nutrix_, was unquestionably a master.

The _Ave Picardia Nutrix_ is a glorification of the fertility and
richness of the land of Picardy. The artist has wished to represent in a
succession of episodes, harmoniously related one to another, all the
products of the soil and all the local industries from which Picardy
draws its prosperity.

To this end he has grouped his figures in the setting of a Picardian
landscape, quite faithful in colour and in line. M. Marius Vachon
analyzes the painting as follows:

"Beneath the orchard of a vast estate some peasants are turning a flour
mill; women are bringing apples for a keg of cider; masons are building
the walls of a house, and an old woman is spinning on her distaff the
native hemp. Along the banks of a stream, women are weaving fish nets;
carpenters are constructing a bridge; boatmen are steering heavy-laden
barges. Add to these professional labours the incidents of work-a-day
life, which are taking place on every side, charming incidents,
picturesque and touching; a little lad, carrying a heavy basket of fruit
on his head, eager to show his strength before his elders; a mother,
nursing her youngest born; some women bathing under the shadow of the
willows. The composition is abundantly suggestive of delicate
impressions; and it forms a magnificent decoration for the edifice in
which it has been placed."

When the painting had been installed in its position in the vestibule of
honour on the main floor, the municipality of Amiens perceived that the
fourth side of the staircase, the only one not decorated, was precisely
the one that best lent itself to the development of a painting, because
of its considerable surface. The ceiling, it is true, darkened this
vestibule, owing to its insufficient window space. It was, furthermore,
adorned by a painting by Barrias. Nevertheless the city determined
to replace the ceiling by a skylight, on condition that Puvis de
Chavannes would paint the vacant panel thus made available.

[Illustration: PLATE V.--REPOSE

(In the Museum, Amiens)

This work is one of the earliest by this great artist. It is very
interesting, because it still shows the influence of Couture's studio,
where Puvis de Chavannes had been a pupil. It serves as a point of
comparison for determining the evolution of the artist's talent.]

However, the resources of the municipality did not permit it to incur so
great an expense. It appealed to the State, which curtly refused its
coöperation. The city fathers of Amiens were in despair, the painter not
less so. What was to be done? Wait until the municipality, through slow
economies, was in a position to order the picture? Puvis de Chavannes,
who had grown enthusiastic over the task, was boiling with impatience
and listened day by day, as he expressed it, to hear if no breeze was
blowing his way from Amiens.

But when the breeze remained persistently unfavourable, Puvis de
Chavannes, growing tired of waiting, decided to execute the panel in any
case, come what might. And he composed the admirable fresco which bears
the name of _Ludus pro Patria_.

Everyone knows the subject of this painting, which has passed into a
legend. In a plain traversed by a running stream, some young men are
engaged in a game of rivalry with spears. On a knoll, an old man,
surrounded by women, serves as umpire. He follows, with attentive eye,
the fluctuations of the game, while a young lad, in a pose charming for
its relaxation, rests one arm around his neck. Behind him a young woman
holds out her baby for its father to kiss. On the left of the picture,
seated at the foot of a tree, or grouped around a fountain, young girls
await the end of the game in which their brothers or their betrothed
take part. One of them leans towards an aged minstrel and begs him to
play some dance music after the game is over.

All these groups are harmoniously disposed in an open-air setting,
dotted over with cottages and stately trees, enveloped in a soft and
mellow light.

This picture reveals the artist's predilection for children, a very
curious and touching predilection to discover in a painter whose own
fireside was never gladdened by childish laughter. Let us examine the
_Ludus pro Patria_; in this picture Puvis de Chavannes has been lavish
of childhood games and pastimes. Notwithstanding that his art was before
all else synthetic, and gained its effects from harmony of attitude
rather than from finish of figures, he plainly expended loving care in
modelling those delicate and charming little bodies, which he has
endowed with infinite grace. Is there anything more adorably exquisite
than the gesture of the infant stretching out its plump arms towards its
father? And does not the child standing before the group by the fountain
reveal the master's tender solicitude for these little beings whose
absence from his domestic life he probably regretted?

The distinguished custodian of the Museum at Amiens showed me the corner
of the balustrade on which the painter rested his elbows, in front of
the group of which that child forms part. After some moments of
contemplation, he might be seen to mount his scaffolding, brush in hand,
to add a few strokes, some new tint to that delightfully modelled little

The _Ludus pro Patria_ is something more and something better than a
beautiful picture; it is a symbolic work in which the noblest
conceptions of patriotism are exalted. With his incomparable synthetic
art, Puvis de Chavannes has endeavoured to show all the diverse manners
of serving usefully one's native land. Young women, bearing the tender
burden of nursing children, are rearing for their country a valiant
generation, which before long will be augmented through the robust girls
grouped on the left, awaiting the advent of husbands. The children,
grown to manhood, will practise games of strength and skill which will
render them capable of defending their common patrimony. The old man
himself has his rôle assigned in this ideal commonwealth; ripened by
experience of life, he supplements the feebleness of his arms by the
wisdom of his lessons; he is the honoured counsellor, the arbiter of
full justice, who restrains the ardor of youth within the path of

The cartoon for this magnificent panel was exhibited in the Salon of
1881; it achieved a unanimous success. The State acquired it, and at the
same time commissioned Puvis to paint the picture itself for the Museum
of Picardy. The finished work, in its proper dimensions, found a place
in the Salon the following year, and gained its author the medal of
honour from the Society of French Artists.

We have followed Puvis de Chavannes in his decoration of the Museum of
Amiens, from the beginning to the end of his artistic career, without
regard to chronological order, because of the interest which he himself
took in this extensive work, which was, one might say, his constant
preoccupation. Accordingly we must go back in point of time and follow
step by step this astonishing and genial worker whose accomplishment is
disconcerting in its power and its fecundity.

The first works executed for the Museum of Amiens had attracted public
attention to him. The municipality of Marseilles had just crowned the
important enterprise of bringing the waters of the Durance into the
city, by erecting a sumptuous Public Waterworks, bearing the name of the
Palace of Longchamps.

Two great mural surfaces enclose the principal staircase. It was decided
to decorate them with paintings. And when the time came to choose the
artist, a unanimous agreement was reached on the name of Puvis de

The latter, being notified, accepted joyfully, as he accepted all
occasions of converting a noble vision of art into a reality. And what
finer fortune could come to an artist that to celebrate Marseilles, the
sun-bathed city, vibrant with light, crouching royally on the azure
mantle of the Mediterranean?

Puvis de Chavannes hastened to the ancient Ligurian city. He calculated
the difficulties of composing a great decorative composition, free from
banality, out of the habitual elements of a seaport,--a subject a
thousand times treated and perilous of execution. He sought, he studied,
he promenaded the quays, he strode the length and breadth of the city.
At last the enlightening flash he awaited came in the course of a trip
to the Chateau d'If. In the presence of that noble panorama of the city
seen from the sea, he remained as if dazed, realizing that he had found
what he was in search of. He would not paint Marseilles with the sea as
a decorative background; it was the city herself that should form the
background, and not the sea. He had his two pictures in his grasp.

And without stirring from the spot, while his friends took luncheon, he
remained seated on the rocks, making notes and sketches, in order to
fix fully in his mind "the line and colour of that marvellous maritime

The first of these pictures, _Marseilles the Greek Colony_, stands for
the entire history of the Phocian city from its foundation to the
present time. But, following his essentially synthetic method, he
painted, not the successive transformations of Marseilles, but symbolic
figures of the sources to which she owes her grandeur and her

In the background is the strand, which as yet is only a natural harbour.
Along the shore, vessels are seen building; these are the symbol of
activity. Further off, horses are bringing merchandise towards the boats
about to sail, symbol of the commercial instinct; masons, carpenters,
stonecutters, are zealously plying their craft; and palaces,
storehouses, and churches arise, symbols of wealth and of taste in art.

Among the accessory features are a woman vendor spreading before other
women rich fabrics and pearls, and some slaves conveying towards the
city jars of oil and skins filled with wine.

In _Marseilles, Gateway of the East_, a ship is seen, laden with
travellers, making its way into port. All these passengers are
Orientals, recognizable by the gaudiness of their garments: they admire
the panorama of the rich city whose fortifications, churches, and
palaces stand out in bold relief against the ruddy light of evening.

An atmosphere of warmth and brilliance emanates from these two
paintings, of which the city of Marseilles has shown herself justly

When Puvis de Chavannes received a commission for a mural painting he
gave himself ardently to his task, but at the same time intermittently.
Contrary to a generally accepted belief, his genius was not the result
of "long patience," but rather the realization of a vision. He never
applied himself to a painting if some external cause, no matter what,
had deadened in him the essential inspiration. In such a case, he would
revert to some other work which his mind could "see better" on that
particular day. In this way we can understand how he could carry forward
simultaneously several works of equal importance, and at the same time
paint in addition occasional easel pictures.


(In the Museum, Amiens)

This painting, admirable in execution, is quite interesting to study,
because it serves to show in what a purely personal manner, wholly
detached from mythological traditions, Puvis de Chavannes interpreted

Following the example of Marseilles and Amiens, the city of Poitiers,
which in 1872 had just completed the building of a City Hall,
commissioned Puvis de Chavannes to decorate the main staircase.

The two subjects chosen by the artist, with the approbation of the
municipality, were as follows:

First panel:--"Radegonde, having retired to the Convent of the Holy
Cross, offers an asylum to the poets and protects Literature against the
barbarism of those days."

Second panel:--"The year 732: Charles Martel saves Christendom by his
victory over the Saracens near Poitiers."

The legend of Radegonde is well known: "The virtuous spouse of Clotaire,
fleeing from the brutality of that crowned free-booter and hiding in a
convent in order to escape his pursuit." But this convent is by no means
a cloister; the practice of arts and letters is pursued alternately with
the singing of psalms.

The door stands open to poets. One of them, Fortunatus, passing through
Poitiers, stops there and is received with cordial hospitality, and
conceiving for the saintly queen a delicate and chaste love, he remains
for twenty years in this abode in which he purposed to spend only a few

Puvis de Chavannes has magnificently rendered the poetic beauty of this
historic episode by representing one of the fêtes given by Radegonde in
the Convent of the Holy Cross.

In the second panel, we see Charles Martel returning to Poitiers,
victorious over the Saracens and receiving the benediction of the
bishops. Here the artist's brush attains a vigour of expression such as
in all his life he found but few occasions to employ. The countenances
of the bishops, notably, stand out with a relief and an energy that are

M. Marius Vachon relates that he once asked the artist, who was a
personal friend, to what documents he had recourse in order to give such
forbidding features to the prelates in his painting:

"I got the suggestion for them," he replied, laughing, "from an old set
of chess men, consisting of the coarse and grouchy faces of knights and


In the days following the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, the
Government conceived the project of decorating the Panthéon, which had
just been once more secularized, in order to convert it into a temple
wherein all the shining lights of the nation could be brought together
and honoured.

M. de Chennevières, who at that time was director of the Beaux Arts gave
the first place, in that illustrious line, to the noble and serene
Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, incarnate ideal of patriotism.

Accordingly it was a series of religious paintings that M. de
Chennevières required of Puvis de Chavannes, when he entrusted him with
a large share of the decoration.

This type of painting, although new to Puvis de Chavannes, failed to
intimidate him. He had too much patriotic fire, more than enough
Christian faith, and above all too thorough a mastery of his profession
not to approach this task with full confidence. It is enough to visit
the Panthéon just once in order to be convinced of this. A more
magnificent realization of Saint Genevieve could not be conceived of,
even in dreams. But are these paintings to be classed with religious
art? One would hesitate to assert it, if the pictures habitually
consecrated to religious themes are to be taken as a standard. But they
are something better than that, because the virgin protectress of Paris
is in these pictures profoundly human; she is brought very close to us,
and we see her despoiled of the aureole that would have removed her too
far from our vision and our hearts.

The whole world knows, at least through reproductions, the series of
paintings consecrated to the life of this saint. First of all, we have
Saint Genevieve as a child, singled out from a crowd by Saint Germain,
because she is marked with the divine seal. "I chose the hour," wrote
Puvis de Chavannes, "at which history claimed possession of this heroic
woman. These two are not an old man and a child, they are two great
souls face to face. The glance which they ardently exchange is, in its
moral significance, the culminating point of the composition."

Next in order comes the _Piety of Saint Genevieve_. The pious child is
at her prayers before a cross formed by two interlacing branches. This
is the prologue of a life filled with miracles, divine recompense
accorded only to supernatural virtue. The artist has admirably
reproduced the mystic fervour of that child whose future was
foreordained to be so beautiful.

Subsequently, in 1896, the Government entrusted Puvis de Chavannes with
the execution of two new panels, likewise dedicated to the life of Saint
Genevieve. The two themes chosen were the following:

"Ardent in her faith and in her charity, Genevieve, whom the greatest
perils could not swerve from her duty, brings sustenance to Paris,
besieged and threatened with famine."

"Genevieve, sustained by her pious solicitude, keeps watch over sleeping

These noble paintings were the last productions of the great artist. A
sort of premonition told him that the end was near, in spite of his
robust health. "How I shall devote myself to the Panthéon," he wrote,
"when I am finished with the Hôtel de Ville! I intend it to be a sort of
last will and testament."

In these last paintings, Saint Genevieve is no longer a child. Having
attained womanhood, her saintliness is such that, from all sides, people
come to take shelter behind her veil, like children around their mother,
as soon as danger is announced.

For the purpose of portraying this hieratic and inspired figure, Puvis
de Chavannes found the ideal model close at hand, in the noble woman who
had associated her entire life with his. _Genevieve bringing sustenance
to Paris_ is the artist's wife who, already mortally ill, inflicted upon
herself the most cruel suffering, in order to pose in her husband's
studio. The disease which was killing her was known only to herself, and
she had the heroism to conceal it up to the supreme hour when, conquered
at last, she was stricken down. In painting the pensive and dolorous
attitude of _Genevieve watching over sleeping Paris_, the poor artist
never once suspected that he was tracing for the last time the portrait
of her who had been the consolation and the joy of his whole existence.

The unfortunate woman lacked the strength to play her rôle to the end;
she was forced to take to her bed. The artist, no less heroic than she,
feeling that his own life was slipping away with hers, yet wishing to
complete this last work,--his testament--transported his easel beside
the dying woman's bed, and there finished the sketches for his picture.

In the intervals of time between the paintings executed for the
Panthéon, Puvis de Chavannes produced certain other large compositions
in no wise inferior either in importance or in merit, notably, in 1883,
a large painting for the Palace of Arts, at Lyons.

The municipal government of that city, wishing to have the main
staircase of the palace decorated, entrusted the execution to the great
artist who was at the same time a compatriot. He felt a very special joy
in accepting this commission, for he had always retained a vivid memory
of the city of his birth.

He endowed it with three pictures of a very high order, one of which,
_The Sacred Wood, dear to the Arts and the Muses_, is considered by many
to be the artist's masterpiece.

Puvis de Chavannes breaks away from the mythological theme so often
treated that it has become hackneyed. It is not on Helicon that he
groups his Muses, but on the shore of a lake, in a setting of verdure
softly illuminated by the rays of the moon. At the foot of a portico,
Calliope is seen declaiming verses before her sisters. Some of the Muses
appear attentive; others converse together; one of them is reclining
lazily upon the grass. Euterpe and Thalia, heralded from the sky by song
and the accompanying lyre, approach to join the group.

[Illustration: PLATE VII.--LETTERS, SCIENCES AND ARTS (detail)

(In the Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne)

In this immense composition, in which the groups are balanced with
admirable harmony, there is an exalted and pervading beauty. It makes
itself felt in the prevailing mood of the subject as a whole, in the
expressions of the several characters, in the naturalness of their
attitudes and in the luminous clarity of the landscape.]

Antiquity, as treated by Puvis de Chavannes, loses nothing of its
nobility, but quite the contrary. It even gains in real beauty, because
his Muses profit by being despoiled of those conventional attitudes, in
which an immutable tradition has trammelled them. The artist has
retained only such of their attitudes as cannot detract in any way from
the naturalness of their movements or their lines.

In the same Palace of Arts, Puvis de Chavannes painted two additional
allegorical panels representing _The Rhone and The Saône_, both of which
are admirably effective.

To about the same period belongs his well known painting, _The Poor
Fisherman_, at present in the Musée du Luxembourg.

In this work, which he painted as a relaxation from his more extensive
efforts, Puvis de Chavannes has tried to portray, as Millet so often
did, all the sordid and lamentable misery of the slaves of toil, who
bend their poor aching backs beneath the burden of physical distress and
mental degradation. This work is a fine and eloquent lesson in

In 1889, the Hôtel de Ville, in Paris, proceeding with the still
unfinished decoration of its numerous halls and chambers, entrusted
Puvis de Chavannes with the task of decorating the main staircase and
the first salon in the suite of reception rooms.

On one wall of this salon, he painted _Winter_, on the other _Summer_.
These two compositions are of imposing dimensions and admirable in

_Winter_ shows us a snow-clad stretch of forest landscape. Woodsmen are
hauling the trunks of trees which others of their number have just
felled. Nothing could be more impressive than his rendering of the
desolation of winter; and the truth, the exactitude of the physical
effort these men are putting forth, with every muscle straining tensely
on the rope.

_Summer_ shows us a delightful and smiling landscape flooded with light;
bathing women plunge their nude forms beneath the water, while a mother,
seated on the grass, nurses her new born child. In this picture Puvis de
Chavannes, who was a landscape painter of the first order, has
surpassed himself; the work is a miracle of open air and grateful shade.

Unfortunately, the room in which these two magnificent pictures are
placed suffers from a deplorable want of light, and its scanty
dimensions make it impossible to stand back at a sufficient distance to
see them to advantage. The Hôtel de Ville should for its own credit
assign them a place more in keeping with their worth.

For the museum at Rouen, Puvis de Chavannes painted an allegory entitled
_Inter Artes et Naturam_, charming in fantasy and poetic feeling.
According to his habit, he has grouped together in synthetic form the
various things which constitute the wealth or serve to mark the
characteristics of the province of Normandy.

Labourers heaping up architectural fragments preserved from all the
various epochs proclaim the variety and antiquity of its monuments; its
special art is represented by a young girl painting a tulip on a
porcelain plate and by a lad carrying a tray of pottery; its principal
agricultural richness is revealed by the action of a woman, bending down
a branch of an apple-tree, in order that her child may reach the fruit.
And at the bottom of the picture flows the Seine, rolling its flood past
a long sequence of manufactories, and bearing in its course heavily
laden boats.

This picture is one of Puvis de Chavannes' most ingenious conceptions;
furthermore, it possesses great charm of detail.

In 1891, the trustees of the Boston Museum approached Puvis de Chavannes
with a request to decorate the main staircase of that edifice.

The negotiations were troublesome. In spite of his delight at having a
new work to produce, in spite of the legitimate pride he felt in this
homage paid to French art, Puvis de Chavannes hesitated to accept the
commission. For the first time he faced the necessity of painting a
canvas without having studied beforehand the physiognomy, the
environment, the illumination of the space he was to decorate, and his
artist's conscience suffered. Besides, certain misunderstandings had
arisen between American trustees and the painter; several times
relations were on the point of being broken off; and no definite
agreement was reached until after the lapse of four years.

Puvis de Chavannes began this work in 1895; he did not finish it until
1898. The surface to be covered was to be divided into nine large
panels, three facing the entrance, three to the right, three to the
left. The choice of subjects was left to him.

For the central panel Puvis de Chavannes chose a theme already treated
twice by him: _The inspiring Muses acclaim Genius, Messenger of Light_.

Against a background of sea and of blue sky, a Genius with the radiant
features of a child advances, holding a torch in each hand. At sight of
the Genius the muses run forward and range themselves on each side.

The ninth muse, still floating through the air, hastens to rejoin her

This whole charming group of women is deliciously painted and one is at
a loss which to admire the more; the originality of the artistic
conception, or the peculiarly rare delicacy of the painter's skill.

The eight subordinate panels represent _Bucolic Poetry_, _Dramatic
Poetry_, _Epic Poetry_, _History_, _Astronomy_, _Physics_, _Chemistry_
and _Philosophy_. All these paintings produce a decorative effect of the
highest order, and many critics consider, not without reason, that this
group of frescoes in the Boston Library constitutes the masterpiece of
Puvis de Chavannes.

However that may be, the authorities of the great American city are very
proud of this absolutely unique decorative ensemble, and whenever any
distinguished stranger passes through Boston he is conducted to admire
it. Is not this a beautiful homage to French art, of which Puvis de
Chavannes was one of the most glorious exponents?


There is, in the work of Puvis de Chavannes, so much harmony and
balance; the place occupied by each figure is so perfectly planned to
accord the unity of the whole, that one does not perceive at first,
because of the wise ordering of the assembled parts, how many-sided the
artist's genius was. And so it happens that the landscape painter in him
does not appear excepting under analysis. Yet few artists have advanced
the science of landscape so far; indeed, in all his compositions it
holds a position, if not of first importance, at least one equal to that
of his figures. In his eyes it was not a matter of convention, a
decoration, an accessory, but an indispensable part of the picture, so
indispensable indeed that, without the landscape the picture would not
exist. In short, it is in his landscape that Puvis de Chavannes has
always placed the local colour of his compositions, and not in his
figures. The latter are generally clad in antique fashion, in order to
remain representative of humanity in general, but the setting is local:
his _Ave, Picardia Nutrix_, for instance, shows us the land of Picardy
with its level plains and its melancholy horizons: similarly, the two
frescoes in the Palace of Longchamps reproduce faithfully the
sun-flooded coast of Marseilles and the animation of its quays;--and yet
the hurrying crowds upon them belong to no definite race nor to any
determinable epoch.

It is always so in the paintings of Puvis de Chavannes: the landscape
and the living figures harmonize, fit in, complete each other, and the
consummate art of the landscape painter yields in no way to that of the
painter of figures.

[Illustration: PLATE VIII.--WAR

(In the Museum, Amiens)

This work dates from the same period as _Repose_ and _Peace_. It marks
the début of Puvis de Chavannes in his career as an artist. In spite of
some reminiscences of his training, his individuality already asserts
itself, and the originality of composition is unmistakable.]

Puvis de Chavannes has been criticized on the ground that in such of his
pictures as evoke antiquity, he sacrificed accepted tradition and
acquired knowledge. From this to a direct charge of ignorance was an
easy step; and it was quickly taken. That the artist attached a mediocre
importance to accuracy in decoration or antique costume, there can be no
question. Truth, in his eyes, consisted less in the detailed
reconstruction of garments than in the faithful representation of that
eternally living model, the human soul, over which whole centuries have
passed, without availing to modify it. All else is merely accessory
and secondary, if not actually negligible. At the same time, no one was
ever more truly impregnated with the spirit of antiquity, as he had
imbibed it from his readings, from his travels and from his own
meditations. Contrary to what has been thought, he was not proud; nor
held himself aloof from all other schools of painting except his own.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Puvis was acquainted with all
the schools; and no one admired more sincerely than he the great masters
of each and every country. He had traversed Italy, Germany, and the
Netherlands, examining, studying, admiring. And here is precisely
wherein his great glory consists; that having studied all methods,
analyzed all processes, he still remained true to himself,--in other
words, that he was a painter of inimitable originality.

Puvis de Chavannes kept abreast of all the ideas that stand for
personality and progress. Far from being a recluse, solely concerned
with his own painting, he followed the contemporary literary movement,
and none of the happenings that took place around him escaped his

Nevertheless, his chief preoccupation was his art and his desire to
express, with his brush, the greatest possible degree of human nature.
This he achieved in his magnificent series of immortal works; but it was
only at the cost of a vast amount of conscientious labour. Few masters
have had so keen an intuition of beauty, or a higher and more
spontaneous inspiration; and no one, perhaps, has been so distrustful of
himself, of his inspiration, of his intuition. He did not surrender
himself to them until he had submitted them to the test of searching
argument and uncompromising common sense. It is due to this careful
weighing in the balance, to this wise mingling of youthful enthusiasm
and mature severity that the work of Puvis de Chavannes owes that
harmonious beauty that insures it an eternal glory.

And so, when in 1898 he passed away, not a dissenting voice was raised
amid the concert of eulogies and of regrets which marked his end. For a
long time previous, Puvis de Chavannes had ceased to have detractors;
admiration had stifled envy. And, from the moment that he crossed beyond
the threshold of life, Puvis de Chavannes entered fully into


    Musée du Luxembourg; _The Poor Fisherman_.

    Panthéon; _Saint Genevieve marked with the divine seal_.--_The
    Piety of Saint Genevieve._--_Saint Genevieve providing for
    besieged Paris._--_Saint Genevieve watching over sleeping
    Paris._--Two decorative Friezes, including _Faith, Hope, and
    Charity_, and a series of _Saints_.

    Hôtel de Ville; _Summer, Winter_.--_Victor Hugo offering his
    lyre to the city of Paris._

    Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne; _Letters, Sciences and Arts_.

    Museum at Amiens; _Peace_.--_War._--_Labour._--_Repose._--_A
    Standard-Bearer._--_A Harvester._--_A Woman weeping over the
    ruins of her house._--_A Woman Spinning._--_Ave, Picardia
    Nutrix._--_Ludus pro Patria._

    Church at Campagnat; _Ecce Homo_.

    Palace of Longchamps (Marseilles): _Marseilles, a Greek
    Colony_.--_Marseilles, Gateway of the Orient._

    Museum at Marseilles: _The Return from the Hunt_.

    Hôtel de Ville, Poitiers: _Saint Radegonde gives asylum to the
    Poets_.--_Charles Martel re-enters Poitiers after his conquest
    of the Saracens._

    Palace of Fine Arts, Lyons: _The Sacred Wood dear to the Arts
    and the Muses_.

    Museum at Rouen: _Inter Artes et Naturam_.

    Public Library, Boston: _The inspiring Muses acclaim Genius,
    Messenger of Light_.

    Museum at Chartres: _Summer_.

    Private Collections: _Herodiade_.--_Autumn._--_Sleep._

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's Notes:

Simple typographical errors were corrected.

Punctuation and spelling were made consistent when a predominant
preference was found in this book; otherwise they were not changed.

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