French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes [1824-1898] is known for his Mural painting in the Symbolist style. Puvis's work is seen as symbolist in nature, even though he studied with some of the romanticists, and he is credited with influencing an entire generation of painters and sculptors, particularly the works of the Modernists. One of his protégés was Georges de Feure. Émile Zola described his work as 'an art made of reason, passion, and will'.
He came to be known as 'the painter for France', despite his present relative obscurity. His first commission was for his brother's chateau, Le Brouchy, which is a medieval-style structure near Cuiseaux in Saône-et-Loire. The principal decorations take the four seasons as their theme. His first public commissions came early in the 1860s, with work at the Musée de Picardie at Amiens. The first four works were Concordia 1861, Bellum 1861, Le Travail 1863 and Le Repos, 1863.
Puvis de Chavannes was president and co-founder in 1890 of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, founded in Paris. It became the dominant salon of art at the time and held exhibitions of contemporary art that was selected only by a jury composed of the officers of the Société.
Puvis was born Pierre-Cécile Puvis in a suburb of Lyon, France, the son of a mining engineer, descendant of an old noble family of Burgundy, and later added the ancestral 'de Chavannes' to his name. Throughout his life however he spurned his Lyon origins, preferring to identify himself with the 'strong' blood of the Burgundians, from where his father originated. Pierre Puvis was educated at the Amiens College and at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris, and was intended to follow his father's profession when a serious illness interrupted his studies, and was compelled to convalesce at Mâcon between 1844-1845, with his brother and sister in law. A journey to Italy opened his mind to fresh ideas, and on his return to Paris in 1846 he announced his intention of becoming a painter, and went to study first under Eugène Delacroix, Henri Scheffer, and then under Thomas Couture. His training was not classical as he found that he preferred to work alone, and took a large studio near the Gare de Lyon, and attended anatomy classes at the Académie des Beaux Arts. It was not until a number of years later, when the government of France acquired one of his works, that he gained wide recognition.
He made his Salon debut in 1850 with Dead Christ, Negro Boy, The Reading Lesson and Portrait of a Man. In Montmartre, he had an affair with one of his models, Suzanne Valadon, who would become one of the leading artists of the day as well as the mother, teacher, and mentor of Maurice Utrillo.
Over the course of his career, Puvis received a substantial number of commissions for works to be carried out in public and private institutions throughout France. His early work at the Musée de Picardie had helped him to develop his classicizing style, and the decorative aesthetic of his mural works.
Among his public works are the later cycles completed at Amiens (Ave Picardia Nutrix, 1865), at Marseille, at Lyon and at Poitiers. Of particular importance is the cycle at the Palais de Beaux Arts in Lyon, which includes three significant works, filling the wall space in the main staircase. From left to right, the works are Antique Vision 1884, The Wood Dear to the Arts and the Muses 1884 and Christian Inspiration 1884.
Puvis's career was tied up with a complicated debate that had been ongoing since the beginning of the 3rd Republic (1870), and at the end of the violence of the Paris Commune. The question at stake was the identity of France and the meaning of 'Frenchness'. Royalists felt that the revolution of 1789 had been an immense disaster and that France had been thrown off course, while the Republicans felt that the Revolution had allowed France to revert to its true course. Consequently, works that were to be displayed in public spaces, such as murals, had the important task of fulfilling the ideology of the commissioning party. Many scholars of Puvis's works have noted that his success as a 'painter for France' was largely due to his ability to create works which were agreeable to the many ideologies in existence at this time.
Puvis's first Parisian commission was for a cycle at the church of Saint Genevieve, which is now the secular Pantheon, begun in 1874. His two subjects were L'Education de Sainte Geneviève and La Vie Pastoral de Sainte Geneviève. This commission was followed by works at the Sorbonne, namely the enormous hemicycle, The Sacred Grove or L'Ancienne Sorbonne amongst the muses in the Grand Amphitheater of the Sorbonne.
His final commission in this trinity of Republican commissions was the crowning glory of Puvis's career, the works Summer and Winter, at the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) in Paris.
Many of these works are characterized by their nod to classical art, visible in the careful balanced compositions, and the subject matter is frequently a direct reference to visions of Hellenistic Greece, particularly in the case of Antique Vision.