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Portrait of Puvis de Chavannes,
Felix Vallotton, 1899

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: 1824 - 1898

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was born on December 14, 1824, in Lyons, France, into an old Burgundian family. His father, a civil engineer, sent him to school first in Lyons, then to the Lycee Henri IV in Paris. Fasinated by science, Puvis prepaired for the Ecole Polytechnique. He also attended some lectures in law. These studies were interupted by illness and a trip to Italy, where he was so struck by Piero della Francesca's frescoes in Aresso that he became interested in frescoe as a medium. On his return to France, Puvis resolved to become a painter.

He studied in Paris, first under Henri Scheffer and then, until 1852, under Thomas Couture, but was influenced more by Theodore Chasseriau than by either of his teachers. He established himself in a studio in the Place Pigalle, where he stayed until the year before his death. Most of his large paintings were done in a studio at Neuilly in the Paris suburbs, to which he walked every day. Many of his ideas for landscape backgrounds came from looking at the Parc Monceau, whose ruined colonnade appears in The Sacred Grove Dear to the Arts and tha Muses.

In 1850 Puvis exhibited a Pieta at the Salon. After 1852, however, his entries were rejected for many years by the Salon jury. When he exhibited in a private gallery the public laughed at his work, but he was defended by the writer and critic Theophile Gautier. At the Salon of 1859 Puvis showed Return from Hunting, and in 1861 he received a second-class medal for his Peace and War. Peace was bought by the French government and Puvis presented War to the state in order that the two paintings should not be separated. They lead to further commissions: decorations for the Marseilles Museum, 1865 - 69, which included Ave Picardia Nutrix and Ludus pro Patria; a series of paintings commemorating the historical importance of Marseilles; and decorations for the town hall of Poitiers, which date from 1872 to 1875.

Puvis' work had at first reflected a variety of influences, including those of many Italian painters, but it gradually evolved toward a personal, monumental style. He felt a need to revive in huge compositions the qualities of Italian fresco painting, though he painted not in fresco but with oil on canvas. His colors were always pale and subdued, the linear element simple and strong.

The first major commission of his career was The life of St. Genevieve, for the Pantheon in Paris. These large-scale scenes were begun in 1876. In them any previous sense of three dimensionality was renounced. Puvis made decorations for the Sorbonne, from 1888 to 1889, then worked for four years on a scheme for the Paris City Hall. As soon as this was finished, in 1893, he began murals in oil on canvas for the public library in Boston, Massachusetts. They had been negotiated for since 1891 and were finished in 1895. Like the Sorbonne decorations, they were much influenced by antique art.

Puvis' independent canvases included The Poor Fisherman and Hope, copied respectively by Georges Seurat and Paul Gauguin, and The Sacred Grove Dear to the Arts and Muses, which was parodied by Toulouse-Lautrec. Yet Lautrec, like Van Gogh admired Puvis. Puvis' work was still widely esteemed when he died in 1898.

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