Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

1824 - 1898

Place Born


Place Died



The work of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) was often exhibited and hugely admired during the nineteenth century. Internationally famous as the author of great mural cycles for public buildings – the city halls of Paris and Poitiers; museums at Amiens, Marseilles, Lyons, and Rouen; the great amphitheatre at the Sorbonne and two campaigns at what was then the Church of Sainte Geneviéve in Paris (that we now know as the Panthéon); and his only murals outside of France, at the Boston Public Library – he is most closely associated with wonderful Arcadian pastorals. Yet, over a fifty-year career, 1848 to 1898, he produced a great many different kinds of work, from portraiture to bleak and melancholic religious painting to inventive allegories and informal still lifes. His works on paper include fresh watercolors and charming gouaches and pastels, with drawings that range from small fingernail sketches to beautifully finished large figure sheets, to wicked caricatures. Most important to a generation of younger artists was his development, in conjunction with his great mural paintings, of a special decorative aesthetic that would have significant impact on their own vision. This called for renewed consideration of the two-dimensionality of compositions, attentiveness to colors keyed to each other and the architectural surrounds, and simplified, flattened forms to allow for ready pictorial legibility.

Born to an affluent Lyonnais family, Puvis came to Paris as a lycéen. Despite his family’s wish that he become an engineer, a trip to Italy turned him towards art, and a second sojourn in 1848 confirmed his resolve to become a painter. After brief stints at the studios of Delacroix and Couture, and early, theatrical canvases of a ‘zealous Romanticism,’ as he later put it, a slew of portraits and dramatic religious canvases, he turned to the classicizing imagery and large allegorical themes that would be the subject of so many of his mural commissions. During the 1860s and 1870s, he was particularly involved with great mural schemes. A monumental canvas such as Le Sommeil was certainly undertaken also with the notion of showing others of what he was capable. Through the 1860s Puvis was particularly keen on building his reputation and worked to consolidate his ever-increasing fame. It was only in the late 1870s, after having achieved a measure of public acclaim, that he would begin to produce his most personally expressive and idiosyncratic canvases, such as Les Jeunes filles au bord de la mer (Young Women by the Seaside) (Musée d’Orsay) and L’Enfant prodigue (The Prodigal Son) of 1879 and in 1881 Le Pauvre pêcheur (The Poor Fisherman) (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). These idyllic and melancholic works were much admired for their strength of invention, radical simplicity, gamut of new, opaque and whitened colors with scumbled textures, and the rhythmic dispositions of figures and landscape elements. How Puvis arrived at the simplifications and flattened images of his mature style has much to do with the peculiar circumstances of developing both monumental murals, for which he formulated a special mural aesthetic, and bringing elements of that aesthetic to his independent paintings.

Puvis’s career spanned fifty years, from the waning days of Romanticism and the ascendancy of Realism in the 1850s, through the development of Impressionism in the 1860s and 1870s and beyond. His work was exceedingly important to that of the indépendants, the neo-Impressionists, such as Seurat; Post-Impressionists of various stripes, such as Gauguin and Van Gogh, and the young Matisse and Picasso. But he did not belong to any of these groups, either aesthetically or socially. Nor was he a Symbolist, though his work – perhaps because it is not faithful to empirical realities – has repeatedly been grouped with that of the Symbolists.

© Aimée Brown Price 1999

Art Works Sold

Le Sommeil (Sleep)

Sold or not Available
Historical Period: 1810-1870 Romanticism and 1840-1900 Realism to Impressionism
Le Sommeil (Sleep)
Ludus Pro Patria

Sold or not Available
Historical Period: 1840-1900 Realism to Impressionism
Ludus Pro Patria