PUVIS DE CHAVANNES Pierre
( 1824-1898). French painter; born in Lyons; died in Paris. It is no longer customary to consider Puvis de Chavannes among the important painters of modern art. However, in his time he was, like the greatest, rejected by the jury of the Salon, and misunderstood by critics. He sided with the most original artists, and was considered in his way as a reformer, a painter whose art brought something new; and if he finally enjoyed official honour, it was without making the slightest concession, and with the approval of those who were considered revolutionaries. In fact, he escaped all classification and influence of schools; he cannot be situated within Impressionism or any of the currents that derived from it, but neither can he be regarded as a champion of the academic. It is true that his audacities seem timid to us today and are surpassed by the violence with which contemporary art has evolved. At the end of the nineteenth century, when the art of the Impressionists began to dominate, and easel painting gradually became the only medium, Puvis de Chavannes wanted to defend the principles of mural painting. He knew that rhythms are not only valid for the exteriorization of feelings but can also be put to the service of necessities outside oneself without losing their value. He was, with Gauguin, perhaps the only painter of the time to have a presentiment of the grandeur of mural painting; and Gauguin was never indifferent to his art. But whereas Gauguin meant to glorify the real, seeking intensity of colours and a harsh nobility of basic forms in the exotic, Puvis de Chavannes desired something similar, at the other pole of refinement, in a calm poetry inspired by history and the legends of Western civilization. What Gauguin thought of obtaining through violence, Puvis de Chavannes wanted to find in tenderness. Thus the two are both profoundly opposed and very closely related, if only by their simplification of modelling in the representation of the human body, the calm and tranquil gravity of their figures, their disposition of figures in the foreground against a backdrop of landscape which covers a great part of the picture and, lifting the horizon very high, leaves little room for the sky. The marked taste of Puvis for fragile elegance can no doubt be regretted, but his large compositions cannot be denied plastic qualities that raise him as a painter far above the pseudo-classicism to which some attempt to confine him today. And the long, slightly too linear silhouette of his figures has not only plastic value. The artist meant to include a number of other meanings in it. He had a liking for symbols and varied imagery, through which his austere and tender poetry could be expressed. To be more precise, with Puvis de Chavannes symbol is not a secret vocabulary and a language for the initiated, but an effort to endow form and gesture with the maximum of human significance. In this respect his picture The Poor Fisherman is typical.
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