Le Sommeil (Sleep)
(Pierre Puvis de Chavannes)


Soon after he had painted his monumental Le Sommeil (Sleep) in 1867, Puvis de Chavannes pronounced it his favorite painting.[1] Precisely twenty years later, in 1887, after his fame was assured and the French government sought to buy a painting to represent his work in the national collections, at the time exhibited in the Luxembourg Palace in Paris, the artist indicated to the then Director of Fine Arts, Jules Castagnary, that Le Sommeil (Sleep) would be a most suitable selection.[2] At over 12 feet high by nearly 20 feet long,[3] it remains one of his most imposing works, approximating in scale the murals for which he may still be best known.

Le Sommeil depicts clusters of slumbering figures peacefully lying huddled together in a landscape, along a shore. In a larger sense, the painting is about respite from activity and the blessing of rest. The group assembled in the right foreground – a cloaked figure, an old man, a woman cradling a baby and a young couple, are representative of the ages of man. Less differentiated is a second band of figures somewhat farther back at left, who are barely distinguishable in the waning half-light. The figures are very much one with the land, that is clear. The partial obscurity contributes to the sense that Le Sommeil, with its poetic sensibility, seems to be at least in part about the kinds of half-understood perceptions that somnolence brings about, the reduced visibility between sleep and waking and the ambiguities of form that are also approximated for the viewer.

An inscription on a preparatory drawing that was repeated in the legend for Le Sommeil in the catalogue for the 1867 Salon at which it was first exhibited provides information about the origins of Puvis’s imagery. It reads, “Tempus erat quo prima quies mortalibus … aegris incipit,” (“It was the hour when for troubled mortals rest–sweetest gift of gods that glides to men–has just begun,”),[4] a fragment from Virgil’s Aeneid (II, 268). This passage refers to the Trojans’ first, unencumbered sleep after they had come to believe their enemies, the Greeks, had left their land and they were spared from war. The Virgilian text is illustrated more closely in a pen and wash drawing with tents pitched along a shore.[5] Its classical origin notwithstanding, Puvis eliminated specific references to literature and narrow meaning in his oil sketches and subsequently in the finished canvas. He thus made it an allegory rather than a history painting.

In the years preceding the creation of Le Sommeil, Puvis had embarked on a series of large, generalized, allegorical paintings for his first public murals. These included, among others, such traditional subjects as Bellum and Concordia (War and Peace), of 1861; Le Travail and Le Repos (Work and Rest) of 1863; and La Contemplation and L’Étude (Contemplation and Study) of 1864 (all at the Musée de Picardie, Amiens). For his monumental Le Sommeil he followed the readily acceptable classicizing vocabulary of draped and semi-draped figures in a landscape setting that he had formulated for his large wall paintings.

Sleep was a frequent motif for painters at mid-century. The pictorial origin of Puvis’s composition surely stems from sleeping figures in works by Théodore Chassériau, such as the harvesters, Les Moissonneurs (or, significantly, Moissonneurs au repos). Puvis was an admirer of the work of Jean François Millet, whose sleeping figures in La Méridienne of 1866 may well have influenced him. Gustave Courbet’s depictions include sometimes-troubled sleepers, such as the fitful women in the provocative Le Sommeil also of 1866; its voyeuristic appeal was to be a component of such twentieth-century renderings of sleepers as those by Picasso.

In preparation for executing his most important canvas of Sleep, Puvis de Chavannes produced more than his usual number of preparatory drawings and oil sketches. Indeed, he must have always had a special fondness for Le Sommeil, for after the definitive painting was completed, he executed not only a reduced version of the painting,[6] but a number of variants on paper, several of which are dedicated and must have been presentation pieces. The oil sketch here presented is the largest in a sequence of works in which Puvis developed his pictorial idea.

In his oil sketches, Puvis tried out various compositions before committing himself to one to be executed on a grand scale. They were also important in establishing a color range and color harmonies, which in turn were significant in the establishment of mood, that would further the meaning of various iconographies. Indeed, only after having decided on the appearance of his final picture and its colors through these sketches would he execute careful drawings of individual figures, participants in the definitive canvas. At their best, the oil sketches (“esquisses”) are notable for a sparkling freshness, a certain spontaneity and immediacy, much as that of a drawn “croquis” or “étude.” Because of their lack of finish, there is also an openness and expansiveness, that connoisseurs admire in them.[7]

The present oil sketch for Le Sommeil is somewhat larger than usual and seems to have been developed from a variant oil sketch that must also date from about 1866.[8] This is clearly a composition in progress, that would be pruned of redundancies to become visually and iconographically more legible. The shifting of figures is interesting to see, as Puvis honed his pictorial and compositional ideas, always simplifying, and strengthening his composition. Thus, a semi-draped woman in a watchful, generally upright position, perhaps a vigilant sentinel,[9] and the sole non-sleeping figure in this sketch, was brought from the center of the smaller work to be marginalized and bracket the composition at the far right – only to be eliminated entirely from the 1867 Salon painting, when the artist must have decided that the figure was not in keeping with the others. So, too, a single figure who lies near the base of the tree at center was to be edited out. Both sketches include deer in the middle distance. The earlier rendering affords them pride of place at the center of the canvas with two of the animals near a pool of water in the forest clearing; they too were to go. But it is in the landscape, particularly, that modifications were to be made. In the earlier sketch there is a mountainous outcropping at far left, and great shrubs, bushes and trees, against which figures are posed. In the current oil sketch, landscape elements have been modified. While still forested, doubtless for reasons of pictorial legibility and simplification, this canvas is no longer densely wooded. That Puvis worried about the grove of trees at the center of his composition is readily demonstrated by the black chalk modifications still very visible, where he experimented with extending and lengthening the tree trunks and painting them in various colors. But the most notable difference in this sequence of compositions is the inclusion here of the setting sun (we presume it is not the moon). It not only fixes the time of day as twilight, presumably nightfall – though with poetic uncertainty it may be dawn or dusk – but serves with its subtle half light to illuminate the trees and recumbent figures to the right. But in this fading light, landscape and figures become increasingly more difficult to differentiate in the middle and background and thus share an elemental oneness. The summit of the sun’s orb, a great arch over the water on the horizon, provides a shape that nicely contrasts to that of the figures and landscape elements. The landscape would continue to undergo change. The large, definitive work would be sparsely vegetated and arid, its color no longer the lush blues seen here. Puvis must have been pleased with the dimensions of this oil sketch for he made his late version of the composition of similar size (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art). This oil sketch is notable for its color casts of lush blue-green and tonalities of tawny golds. In the 1860s Puvis experimented with color, producing monumental murals with color chords keyed to their surrounds; and monochromatic decorations in roses, pewter gray, and blue hues. The reigning blue and gold tonalities of this oil sketch lend a sense of unreality and enchantment to Le Sommeil. Its colors are notably similar to that of Fantasy (La Fantaisie)[10] of 1867 (Ohara Museum, Kurashiki), itself compared when it was first exhibited by critics who did not know how to explain what was perceived as the strangeness of its hues, to majolica. Through the sequence of oil sketches and works on paper that Puvis so assiduously worked on in connection with Le Sommeil, he varied his colors and their range as much as he was to modify the composition itself. In this sketch, a number of figures are deftly outlined with subtle colors broadly laid in. In another version, silvery neutral colors prevail.[11] The apparent thrust of these changes was towards creating an atmosphere that furthered the sense of the theme of his work and was thus integral to it.

Landscape played an increasingly important part in Puvis de Chavannes’s paintings, as he came to construct compositions in which all the pictorial components were carefully considered as shapes on the pictorial surface. Landscape and figurative elements were enlisted mutually to reinforce one another in the creation of rhythmic patterns. Puvis would frequently introduce a horizontal background stretch of sea or waterway in his paintings, such as that in Le Sommeil.

This fine oil sketch was once owned by the painter Paul Baudouin, a protegé of Puvis’s, whose writing about Puvis provides a valuable source on the master. It might well have been a gift from the painter to his valued aide. Sold in 1944, in the waning days of the Second World War, and long thought lost, it recently resurfaced and now after cleaning and sparkle, once again may take its important place in this august series.

© Aimée Brown Price 1999 NOTES

[1] See letter from Puvis to the painter Léon Joly Saint François cited in Paris, Grand Palais; and Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, Puvis de Chavannes, 1824-1898, catalogue by Louise d’Argencourt and Jacques Foucart with contributions by Marie-Christine Boucher and Douglas Druick and introductory essay by Aimée Brown Price (Paris and Ottawa, 1976-1977), no. 231. Also see Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, catalogue by Aimée Brown Price in conjunction with an exhibition organized by the author as guest curator, with contributions by Geneviève Lacambre and Jon Whiteley, (Waanders Uitgevers, Zwolle, 1994; imprint by Rizzoli International, New York, 1994), pp. 116-118.

[2] Letter of November 26, 1887; Musée du Louvre, Cabinet des Dessins Le Pauvre pêcheur (The Poor Fisherman). of 1881, now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, was chosen.

[3] It is 149 5/8 x 236 1/4 inches (380 x 600 cm.), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille (625).

[4] Translation from Allen Mandelbaum. The inscribed preparatory drawing is ink on tracing paper, 9 3/4 x 13 5/8 inches (249 x 348 mm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

[5] Musée de Lille, no. 2033.

[6] It is 26 1/8 x 41 3/4 inches (66.4 x 106.1 cm.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Theodore M. Davis Bequest (1915), 30.95.253). By 1867 he had just begun his practice of painting smaller variants after his murals for exhibition purposes.

[7] One might compare his pair of sketches for his Marseilles murals of about two years later, Massilia, colonie grecque (Massilia, Greek Colony) and Marseilles, porte de l’Orient (Marseille, Gateway to the Orient) Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; there are also black chalk notations on top of the painted surface of the former.

[8] That one is 21 5/8 x 31 1/2 inches (55 x 80 cm), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille (dépôt de l’Etat, Inv. RF 1943-71), which is also the approximate size of the reduced version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is after the large, definitive canvas of 1867. Compare also the later Landscape with Figures Sleeping (the composition of which is similar to the Metropolitan canvas), gouache, 4 5/8 x 6 7/8 inches (116 x 175 mm), Kresge Art Center Gallery, Michigan State University, East Lansing; see Aimée Brown Price, “A Puvis de Chavannes Gouache in the Michigan State University Art Collection,” Kresge Art Center Bulletin, 2 (October 1968), n.p.

[9] These years, 1866-1867, Puvis was painting several versions of La Vigilance (Vigilance), (for example Musée d’Orsay, Paris, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), a female allegorical figure keeping watch. One of his last murals for the Panthéon was also on this theme, Sainte Geneviève veillant sur la ville endormie, shows the patron saint of Paris keeping watch over her city.

[10]One of a quartet of decorative canvases for the private town house of Mme Claude Vignon, a noted artist and writer; the others are at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

[11]That version is 14 1/2 x 22 3/4 inches (36.9 x 58 cm.), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille (Inv. 1358 bis).

24 3/8 x 40 1/2 inches (62.4 x 103.4 cm.)
Oil and black chalk on canvas

PROVENANCE: Probably studio collection of the artist; Paul Baudouin, until 1944; Private Collection, Paris.

Where is It?
Acquired by a Private Collector
Historical Period
Romanticism - 1810-1870 & Realism to Impressionism - 1840-1900
1999-An Eye on Nature II: The Gallic Prospect. French Landscape Painting 1785-1900.
Hard back catalogue of the Exhibition held in New York. 195 pages fully illustrated with 37 full colour plates and 65 black and white illustrations (many full page). Forward by Patrick Matthiesen and Guy Stair Sainty. Introduction by Guy Stair Sainty. £35 or $50 inc. p.&p.

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Price band
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