The Art Gallery


Pierre Puvis de Chavannes


    Author: Aimée Brown Price

    In 1976, a retrospective exhibition on the work of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was held at the Grand Palais in Paris, before traveling to the Ottawa National Gallery. The catalogue extended beyond the scope of the Lyonnais artist’s easel paintings to include his decorative output, for in addition to being France’s leading mural painter in both public and private domains, he received prominent commissions in the United States such as the still intact grand staircase of the Boston Public Library. The rediscovery of Puvis de Chavannes was a tour-de-force led by Louise d’Argencourt and Jacques Foucart, and yet it underscored the lack of a detailed catalogue comprising the artist’s vast and habitual output of studies, variations, reworkings and adaptations. The more compact exhibition that took place in1994 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam further intensified the need for a reference catalogue.

    The past decade has seen a surge of interest in Puvis de Chavannes. As a result of several major sales, such as the auction of nearly seventy works on 10 December 2003 – where the Musée d’Orsay acquired a small and unusual panel painting entitled Vue du château de Versailles et de l’Orangerie made in 1871 during the Paris Commune when the artist was in exile with his family (see update 11/12/03) – and the entry of several important paintings in public collections – e.g. the 2001 acquisition by the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Angers of the painting from 1853 entitled Mademoiselle de Sombreuil buvant un verre de sang pour sauver son père (cat. n° 29); the 2009 acquisition by the Musée d’Orsay of an early work (whose title Négrillon à l’épée (cat. n° 8) remains to be clarified by future research) that entered the museum a year after Orphée1, formerly in the possession of Judith Gautier (cat. n° 295) and figuring in the Catalogue Raisonné under the name of its previous owner. These sales and acquisitions further heightened the need for a comprehensive study. Aimée Brown Price, in her two-volume Pierre Puvis de Chavannes recently published by Yale University Press, undertakes this arduous research, although she mainly focuses on the painted works.

    The first volume of the study provides a biography and stylistic analysis of the oeuvre, and features some very interesting appendices that refer to the acts of the notary who, on 14 November 1898, was entrusted with drawing up the artist’s death inventory for the atelier on 11 Rue Pigalle and the Neuilly estate. The chronological biography is highly annotated and superbly illustrated. It suggests various insightful comparisons, situating Puvis within his era and highlighting his originality, and reviews the critical reception of his work, although some might have reservations about the overly flattering slant of the selected excerpts and the rather biased analysis of certain events. The inclusion of some of the caricatures that Puvis delighted in sketching throughout his life adds a new unconventional note to the biography of an artist who has been too often relegated among the humorless rigorists.

    The bibliography that concludes the first volume is divided into “primary sources” for documents and archives, and “secondary sources” for strictly bibliographical material. Among the primary sources, there is a conspicuous distinction between documents belonging to private owners and those belonging to public institutions. Such methodology does not seem to apply to the so-called secondary category, which liberally blends general overviews that merely mention Puvis by name without any critical commentary and which barely reappear in the second volume, together with cutting-edge articles that oddly figure in the entries but not in the bibliography, with the exception of some past and present writers such as Théophile Gautier, Léonce Bénédite, André Michel and Aimée Brown Price. Why, for instance, neglect Henri Dorra’s anthology Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology [2] which does not merely cite Gautier’s public criticism in 1861 but probes the connections between writer, artist, subject matter and intent, at the time when Puvis was presenting his decorative panels Concordia and Bellum at the Salon Officiel, for the Musée d’Amiens? Following the appendices, there is a surprising absence of indexes, which would have not been so difficult to include. Why is there no index of collectors or no index of locations which, beyond a dry enumeration, would have shed light on the history of tastes and collections? It is also surprising that in this lengthy list, there is no reference to the impressive Bulletin that the Comité Puvis de Chavannes has been publishing for several years now. Some of their articles and notes might have enhanced the catalogue (for instance by enabling identification of the Portrait de femme (cat. n° 24) as the painter’s sister Madame de Vaugelas, or by expounding on the sketch Virgile catalogued under n° 409). Some of the “updates” that conclude the Bulletin seem to have escaped the notice of the person who compiled the captions for the works listed in the second volume, which we shall now discuss.

    Modestly titled A Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, the second volume – which for some reason comprises several large sketches in chalk, pencil and brown ink wash on canvas, while omitting others – such as reference n° 86f which belongs to a Parisian collection –, far surpasses a commented enumeration of Puvis de Chavannes’ works, for it provides detailed documentation of texts and images, although some of the choices are baffling. As of the first entry on the Trois personnages in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk (ill.), one realizes that the brevity of the “Sources and Literature” section is due to the numerous notes that cross-refer to the Bibliography in the first volume…as well as to the List of Exhibitions at the end of the volume in hand. Another awkward crisscross between the two volumes: the full-page color images in the first volume only appear as black and white plates in the second volume. There is never any indication of a page number following a name or location matched with a date; this will not ease the task of future researchers who, unless they systematically return to the source, will be forced to fumble about.

    Atelier Place Pigalle
    Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)
    Trois personnages, 1848
    Oil on canvas - 147,3 x 104,1 cm
    Norfolk, Chrysler Museum

    Modestly titled A Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, the second volume – which for some reason comprises several large sketches in chalk, pencil and brown ink wash on canvas, while omitting others – such as reference n° 86f which belongs to a Parisian collection –, far surpasses a commented enumeration of Puvis de Chavannes’ works, for it provides detailed documentation of texts and images, although some of the choices are baffling. As of the first entry on the Trois personnages in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk (ill.), one realizes that the brevity of the “Sources and Literature” section is due to the numerous notes that cross-refer to the Bibliography in the first volume…as well as to the List of Exhibitions at the end of the volume in hand. Another awkward crisscross between the two volumes: the full-page color images in the first volume only appear as black and white plates in the second volume. There is never any indication of a page number following a name or location matched with a date; this will not ease the task of future researchers who, unless they systematically return to the source, will be forced to fumble about.

    The inclusion of related works is always enlightening in this sort of anthology, but it would have been more effective with more clarity of purpose in the choice of reproductions, and with an availability of bibliographical references. Alluding again to Puvis’ earliest work, what is the point of showing a drawing that doesn’t depict any of the figures in the Trois personages, and what do art historians say about it? If it doesn’t come with a date, and might just as well be an original as a copy, why is it present? And, still bearing the researcher in mind, couldn’t the caption for this drawing have been supplemented with a more informative reference? Why doesn’t it say “Boucher (1874)” – which appears in the general bibliography – and thereby indicate, even minimally, the dissertation presented by Marie-Christine Boucher in 1974 on the ensemble of Puvis de Chavannes’s works conserved in Paris at the Musée du Petit Palais.

    The reproduction displayed under n° 362a, which does not cite any current location or technical information, corresponds to a large 34x24.5cm page, which has been frequently exhibited over the past few years. It now belongs to the Musée de Beauvais (Oise), having been donated in 1997 by Marie-Thérèse Laurenge who had bought it ten years beforehand at the Galerie Coligny [3].  While the entries for each number draw abundantly on the 1976/77 catalogue, they sometimes make stimulating comparisons and launch new paths, although the visual connection between certain works awaits future confirmation. The influence of Henry Scheffer on the young Puvis de Chavannes, mentioned several times, is interesting but does not seem totally convincing. The comparison is merely demonstrated with black and white plates (cat. n° 13 et n° 13a), where the composition and identical poses of the similarly-aged figures does not compellingly link two techniques that seem quite different, which is to be expected when juxtaposing an intimate and roughly painted portrait with an official portrait intended for public display.

    The exhibitions at the Palazzo Grassi (Venice) in 2002 and at the Musée de Picardie (Amiens) in 2005 both aimed, although with very different means, to revise Puvis’ overall career in light of his contemporaries and subsequent artists, and yet some parallels were only hinted at while other were overemphasized. The time is thus ripe, equipped with Aimée Brown Price’s Catalogue Raisonné, to envisage a new monographic event on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes – in which his passion for the pastel medium should not be disregarded – so as to illuminate the gray areas that eclipse the man and his oeuvre.

    In the meanwhile, and despite the many reservations elicited by Aimée Brown Price’s choices and by Yale University Press’s layout, researchers now have at their disposal a perfectible work tool that nevertheless offers a vast repertory of images and references. It is to be hoped that readers will freely add annotations, and thus transform the book into an ideal working instrument long-awaited by researchers and dreamed of by Puvis’ admirers so as to erect, upon this bedrock, a rightful monument to the “hero” of generations of artists.

    Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Volume I: The Artist and his Art. Volume II: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2010, 450 pp, $250. ISBN 9780300115710.

    Dominique Lobstein, Thursday 15 July 2010


    Notes
    [1] Both paintings will soon be featured in an update on recent acquisitions of the Musée d’Orsay.
    [2] London, University of California Press, 1994, pp 35+.
    [3] Josette Galiègue, chief editor, De l’école de la nature au rêve symboliste, Paris, Somogy, 2004, p. 203.


    Translation : Nathalie Lithwick