In late nineteenth century France, as the battle between the establishment Salon and outsider Impressionists heated up, finding the middle ground where both sides could agree was no easy task. In his many public murals and paintings, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes walked that fine line and appealed to both sides of the argument. Born December 14, 1824, Puvis’ work takes the classicism of the Salon and adds a neo-Symbolist flavor that caught the eye of younger artists such as Gauguin, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Rodin. In works such as The Poor Fisherman (above, from 1881), Puvis could use the Salon-approved technique to depict the everyday life of the common man. Beneath that, however, Puvis added the unique psychological touches that make this more than just an image of a fisherman and his family.
After studying first under Eugène Delacroix and later under Thomas Couture, Puvis struck out on his own, often adding a religious side to the Romanticism he learned from his teachers. His Magdalena (above, from 1869) shows Mary Magdalene (of Da Vinci Code fame) standing in a desolate landscape contemplating mortality in the form of a skull. Again, Puvis takes a common religious subject and adds a twist, in this case a Hamlet-esque interior life that fleshes out the standard Biblical account of the first female disciple of Christ. Puvis depicted many scenes from the Bible, including the tale of the Prodigal Son, always going beyond the letter of the text and placing himself inside the head of the subject. This psychological insight makes Puvis seem quite modern today, which makes me wonder why his reputation has suffered so long.
Works such as Young Women by the Sea (above, from 1879) illustrate easily how Rodin could find Puvis so inspiring. Puvis' classical nudes in lively, dramatic poses easily appealed to Rodin’s interest in reviving the sculpted figure and resurrecting the vivacity that Michelangelo had injected into his sculpted and painted figures, both nude and clothed. In contrast to the scenery around Magdalena, the landscape and seascape behind these three figures conveys peace and harmony. The Eden-like vibrations coming off of this work could make it seem trite if not for the individualization of the three figures through their unique poses, which lend a graceful sense of movement to each of them. Puvis ranks among the many Salon painters of late eighteenth century France who have fallen thanks to the rise of Impressionism, which swept clean the memory banks of art history for that time. Hopefully, Puvis' time will come again and he will be seen as a hidden modernist in the guise of conservatism.