At the heart of symbolism

At the edge of Symbolism


Self-portrait at 33 (Detail, Petit Palais Museum, Paris)

An inspiring painting

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) belongs to the same generation as Gustave Moreau who was a very good friend of his. Son of an intellectual and very cultivated family from Lyon, he undertook scientific studies interrupted by sickness. During his convalescence, he travelled in Italy where his artistic gifts developed. After a second trip that determined his vocation, he took a two weeks course run by Eugène Delacroix who he admired. Nevertheless, it was especially the support of his friend and painter Théodore Chassériau and the authority of his teacher Thomas Couture that really inspired him.

In 1852, he settled in the Parisian studio that he occupied all his life. He occasionally celebrated scientific progress, but refused the modern world. He found his inspiration in the early Italian Renaissance, in Giotto notably. His scorn for matter is reflected in a personal and simplified style, notably developed under the influence of the princess Marie Cantacuzène who became his sensible counsellor, his devoted friend, his model and finally his wife. Within his compositions which had no relief or consistency, the rhythmical lines are enough to suggest bodies and the non natural colours, in pure deadened hues, let filter a serene and timeless atmosphere. In his works, life is put on ice just like his personages and landscapes.

During his artistic life, his art has gone through several mutations:

  • The exploration of Beauty and pure Idea of an ethereal world stood in for religious themes from the beginnings;
  • Myths and legends suggesting symbols and poetry replaced historical subjects;
  • The representation of people supplanted the portrait, particularly in large wall compositions that turned him into the greatest French “painter and decorator”.

The spirit of Puvis's wall paintings inspired Vincent Van Gogh and especially Georges Seurat.

Puvis de Chavannes worked relentlessly and realized works for himself or his friends as well, notably Young women by the sea (1879) that inspired Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse and The poor fisherman (1881) that influenced Pablo Picasso.

Unfairly neglected today, he nevertheless remains a central figure of the Symbolist movement. He had a strong influence surpassing that of Gustave Moreau. He launched the movement, but did he stop halfway, on the threshold of Symbolism as asserted by some people ? If Puvis de Chavannes undeniably belongs to the movement through his themes and compositions, does he really not open a gate on the depths of the being ? Is he too dominated by classicism to suggest the passage between the visible and the invisible, following the example of Odilon Redon who respected him ? The answer to these questions lies in his works, particularly his easel works.

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