In my previous couple of blogs I looked at two married couples, all four of whom were artists who based themselves around Copenhagen and the Skagen area of northern Denmark. The two wives, Anne Ancher née Brøndum and Marie Krøyer née Tiepcke both spent time studying art in various Paris ateliers, one of which was run by the French painter, Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes and so I thought over the next two blogs it would be interesting to look at his life story and examine some of his truly beautiful works of art. In this first part I am going to concentrate on a series of his decorative works – his first set of wall paintings which can be seen at the Musée de Picardie in Amiens, a town in the Picardy region of northern France. Pierre-Cécile Puvis, as it was not until somewhat later in life that he attached the ancestral name of his Burgundian forefathers “de Chevannes” to his surname, was born in Lyon, into a wealthy bourgeois family in December 1824. His mother was Marguerite Guyot de Pravieux and his father, Marie-Julien-César Puvis de Chavannes, who was the Chief Engineer of Mines for the region. His father’s wealth would ensure that Pierre never wanted financially for the rest of his life. Pierre was the youngest of four children. He had two sisters, Joséphine and Marie-Antoinette and a brother Edouard. He went to school at the Lycée Royal and the Collège Saint-Rambert, in Lyon. Later he attended the Lycée Henri IV in Paris and in 1842 at the age of eighteen Pierre Puvis had obtained his baccalaureate. By 1843 both Pierre’s parents were dead. His mother died in October 1840 and his father died three years later in Nice. In 1843 he briefly enrolled at a law school in Paris but left after a few months. His father had had high hopes that his son would follow in his engineering footsteps. However, any hopes of proceeding on to an engineering career via the l’Ecole Polytechnique in Lyon were dashed when he was struck down with a serious illness whilst studying for the entrance exam. For most of 1844 and 1845 he had to convalesce at the home of his sister Joséphine and her husband Esprit-Alexandre Jordan in Mâcon in central France.
In 1846 his life was to change as for part of his recuperation he decided to go on a trip to Italy. It was during his journey around Italy that he fell in love with the art that he saw, and the frescos and murals stimulated his interest in painting and so, on his return to Paris, he announced his intention to become a painter. The first painter he approached for an apprenticeship was the French history painter and portraitist Emile Signon but he was turned down and told to seek out Ary Scheffer who eventually arranged for Pierre to be trained at the atelier of his brother, Henri Scheffer. In 1848 Pierre embarked on a second trip to Italy, this time accompanied by the painter Louis Bauderon de Vermeron. On returning from Italy in late 1848, he worked at Eugène Delacroix’s studio but this only lasted a fortnight as Delacroix was taken ill and the studio was closed and Pierre went to work at the atelier of the French history painter Thomas Couture. In 1850, Pierre Puvis set up his very own studio in rue St Lazare and in that year he had his first work, Dead Christ, exhibited at that year’s Salon.
Later in the 1850’s Pierre Puvis, art changed and he concentrated on large decorative pieces for large houses or other important establishments. These were neither frescos nor murals but were painted canvases which were then affixed to the wall. These wall paintings were often secured to walls by a method known as marouflage where the canvas was “glued” to the wall by an adhesive which when it dries is as strong as plaster or cement. The terminology marouflage comes from the French word, maroufle, which is the word to describe the sticky substance which has congealed at the bottom of artist’s paint pot.
In 1861 Pierre Puvis produced two large paintings, each measuring 3.4 x 5.5m, one entitled Peace and the other, its companion piece was entitled War. The work entitled Peace depicted an idyllic land with figures from ancient times relaxing in a peaceful landscape, with not a care in the world. In the background we can see people riding horses, running and dancing whilst in the foreground we observe goats being milked. Fruit is plentiful and we see it being gathered up. Life in this state of peace and tranquillity could not be better and it is thought that Pierre Puvis based his work on Virgil’s fourth Eclogue in which the poet described such a place:
“…..the uncultivated earth will pour out
her first little gifts, straggling ivy and cyclamen everywhere
and the bean flower with the smiling acanthus.
The goats will come home themselves, their udders swollen
with milk, and the cattle will have no fear of fierce lions….”
In the work entitled War things couldn’t have been more different. Gone is the idyllic landscape, now supplanted by a background showing a gloomy and desolate landscape in which we can see homes burning. In the left mid-ground we see a soldier in all his armour, with his red cloak fluttering behind him as he pitilessly kills civilians. In the foreground we see women on their knees begging for mercy as three riders sound their horns. Could it be they are the attackers sounding off in a triumphal fashion or are they fleeing the enemy and urging their people to hurry along? Behind the horsemen we see a column of stragglers, some being carried, fleeing the enemy. Look at the beast on the ground to the left of the women. See how by showing the white of its eye we get a sense of its fear whilst the other animal, next to it, raises its head, its neck stretched to the limit, as it bellows for mercy. The French State purchased Peace and because Puvis did not want his pair of paintings to be separated he donated War to the French State. Following the completion of Peace and War in 1861, Pierre Puvis found himself without any commissions so decided to paint two more works to act as companion pieces to Peace and War.
He entitled them Work and Repose and submitted them to the Salon of 1863.
At around this time in Amiens a new museum, Musée de Picardie, was being built and one of its architects, Arthur-Stanislas Diet, approached Pierre Puvis to see if all four of these works could be placed on the wall of the museum’s monumental main staircase and the gallery. He agreed. The French State loaned the first two paintings to the museum and Pierre Puvis donated the other two works.
Four years later in 1867, Pierre Puvis produced smaller versions of Peace and War which can now be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In my next blog I will feature some of Pierre Puvis’ smaller works and continue with his life story.