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PUVIS

(Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, 1824-98)

In libraries, universities, and art museums from Paris to Boston, one is likely to find monumental painted decorations by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Generally these internationally acclaimed public murals - the result of three decades of official commissions - depict a mythical, unnaturally serene golden age, a pre-industrial or even prehistoric era where all was milk and honey under balmy skies.

At the Salon of 1873, the year before the Impressionists' first group exhibition, Puvis exhibited the huge idyll called Summer, first destined for the art museum at Chartres but now at Orsay. A dreamlike counterpart to the intimate scenes of modern summer leisure favored by Manet, Renoir, and Monet in the 1860s and 70s, Puvis's epic panorama of archaic harmony conjures up a mixture of the Bible and remote antiquity in which human society is blessed by what seems eternal peace, bounty, and good weather. A soothing fantasy for the years immediately following the Franco Prussian War (to which Puvis had responded more directly with a pair of allegories), this mural sings the praises of simple family life and rudimentary agriculture, offering a gentle and fruitful trinity of babies, lambs, and wheat.

Although these remote fictions of a timeless Garden of Eden were common to the repertory of academic artists, Puvis recreated them with a strongly personal flavor that, oddly enough, was acceptable to both the establishment and to many of the young artistic rebels of later decades. His generalized espousal of ancient beauty legitimized his work in the official world of public prizes and commissions, but his willfully primitive style opened quite different vistas. Inspired by the chalky, pallid surfaces of fresco painting from both the ancient world and that of the Italian primitives, Puvis also resurrected archaic pictorial structures in which simple geometries, flattened silhouettes, and frail columnar rhythms offered an image of almost primordial innocence and clarity. It is no surprise that echoes of Puvis's Arcadia can be found in the works ofSeurat and Gauguin and their disciples, whether in their visions of harmonious societies on the banks of the Seine or in the fields of Britanny and the jungles of Tahiti. Nor is it unexpected that the strange hush and stillness familiar to Puvis's art, so often described as anemic, would find more mysterious reverberations in the Symbolistdomain of the turn of the century, from works by Maurice Denis and Alexandre Seon to the Picassos of the Blue Period. In this territory many artists further refined the nuances of Puvis's dreamy silence and introspection.

- From Robert Rosenblum, "Paintings in the Musee D'orsay"

 PUVIS_POORFISH

Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre The Poor Fisherman 1881 Oil on canvas 5' 1" x 6' 3 3/4" (155 x 192.5 cm) Musee d'Orsay, Paris