PIERRE PUVIS DE CHAVANNES is the most impressive figure of the last quarter of the century. In an age of flux and agitated sensations he pursued with steady persistence the goal to which his instinct and his reason alike impelled him, and eventually dominated by sheer quietude of force. He resumed the great decorative traditions of the eighteenth century; but, passing over Rubens and the masters of the High Renaissance, drew inspiration from the primitive Florentine artists, from Giotto in particular. Yet impressionism, in the broad sense of the term, also affected him. His decorations are impressions and expressions, relying upon the eloquence of suggestion.
The student should begin his study of Puvis, if possible, by a visit to the Museum of Amiens. Here, alongside of later panels, may be seen the early examples, War and Peace. In these, already, Puvis reveals himself an artist of ideas, of imagination, not building up a composition which is empty of meaning or one which relies for its interests upon incident. It is the soul of War and Peace that he interprets: the horror of the one in its brutalizing of the conqueror and its wreaking of misery on the innocent and helpless ; the blessedness of the other in promoting the possibility of fullest harmony between humanity and nature. Each canvas presents incidents, but they are dominated by the embracing idea. It is the idea that, as far as the subject is concerned, absorbs one’s imagination.
But as yet the technical method contradicts the abstraction of the subject. The treatment is pictorial and the eye gradually roams to and lingers on fragments of superlative interest. Puvis was still working in the manner of many others who have covered the walls of the Pantheon and other public buildings with illustrations.
But Puvis’ instinct divined the fact that, since architecture is the most abstract of the fine arts, the others when they cooperate with it should partake of its abstraction. It has become a shibboleth of the decorators that the space must be treated in subordination to the surrounding architecture. But this, after all, is little more than a maxim of architectonic good manners, which, by the way, was violated freely by the Italians when it suited them. Nor will the sole regard for architectonic propriety succeed in effecting the harmony between painting and building that is attained by Puvis. His art rested on a profound principle: that of the genius of abstract expression. In an age, so dominated by the concrete as his own and ours, it offered a means of emphasizing the claims of the spirit.
In order to achieve this abstraction Puvis submitted himself to a severe discipline of elimination, which should reduce the concrete, as far as possible, to its essential elements and sacrifice the representative quality of form in favor of its more significant qualities of expression. He was influenced thereto by the example of Giotto, whose simplification, whether it resulted from a large dramatic sense or from inability to carry the drawing farther, is so admirably decorative and full of character. Puvis, in emulating this, had to divest himself of the habit of treating the figures as prescribed by the schools. It is sometimes said that he had to unlearn what he knew; but the truer way of putting it is to say that he had to learn the higher principles of drawing, such as Daumier, Millet and Degas proclaimed, which simplifies the masses by omission of unessentials. They adopted this principle in pursuit of character of expression in the figures. Puvis carried it still further in order to reduce the individual characterization of the figures in favor of a complete balance of harmoniously abstract relation between the figures and their surroundings. For with Puvis the landscape is not incidental or subordinated to the figures; it is rather the orchestration to which the figures are contributing not separate melodies but a united chorale. Hence the figures have become static; scarcely more animated than the trees, yet by the suggestion of their human forms yielding a poignancy of expression. There is a French saying to the effect that solitude is beautiful when there is some one present to whom we can say, “How beautiful is solitude.” This is somewhat the rôle played by the figures in Puvis’ as in Corot’s landscapes. They intensify the sense of universal harmony in this vision of the solitude of the spirit.
Regarded from the point of view of both learned plane-construction and of expression, Puvis comes near to being the greatest landscape artist of the century. The element in his work which determines its high quality is his extraordinary sense of the value of open spaces. We do not find it in his early work. His Peace is beautiful, but with a confined beauty that draws us in upon the figures ; which are not only fully modeled but grouped in masses that show one form against another. Compare with this any of his later work, and we find the grouping loosened out so that the figures are more distributed and take their place independently in the increased depth and number of the planes. But, even so, the final technical secret of the abstraction which pervades the whole, drawing all together into a vast spiritual harmony, is the extent of the open spaces. You can assure yourself of this by a visit to the Pantheon where his Cycle of Ste. Geneviève can be compared with the pictorial and illustrative mural embellishments of diverse famous artists who are deficient in the decorative sense but still more in the quality of abstraction. Study, for example, that expanse of violet night-sky which makes up half the composition of Ste. Geneviève looking over Paris. Its very emptiness leaves uninterrupted roaming-space for your imaginings as for those of the sainted maiden. It links her quiet spirit, as it may one’s own, with the mystery of infinite calm.
It is to be noticed that as a rule it is only in his skies that Puvis allows himself the use of pure color. One might imagine that he first chose the beautiful hue of the blue and then attuned all the other colors to it. They have yielded up their positiveness. The verdure and foliage are a pale green, the ground has faded to brownish gray, against which the flesh tints show a slightly lower tone of the same hue. For it was a habit of Puvis to set his figures against a background of slightly higher key. While his colors are thus de-colorized, they are subtilized by the number of tones which each hue presents. The process corresponds to the dematerializing of the facts and contributes to the abstraction and spiritualized harmony of the ensemble. It may be that at times Puvis carried the decolorization as well as the dematerialization of his figures too far; that the colors become a trifle beggared, the forms a little incoherent in their lack of “drawing.” One possibly is conscious of this in some of his panels in the Boston Public Library, which represent the work of his declining years, and in certain of the smaller detached panel easel-pictures. If so, it is but necessary to turn to his Geneviève cycle, or to Winter in the Hotel de Ville, Paris, or to the hemicycle of the Sorbonne, or Inter Artes et Naturam, and not alone to these, to realize the genius of this modern master.
Wherein lies its magic? Possibly in its direct out growth from the spirit of the time, which in turn it lifted higher, turning its own weakness into strength. For his age was marked, not only by a yearning after some spiritual escape from the jungle of materialism, but also by an overwrought sensibility that rejected the obvious and sought for the most subtle sensations.
Out of this virtual decadence of his time Puvis constructed visions of spiritual refreshment.
So far as there is a successor to Puvis de Chavannes, it is Maurice Denis (1885) . He has been influenced by the older man, but has applied in his own way the principles of abstraction, space-composition and color. He is himself a lover of the primitive Florentines, and was attracted, it is said, particularly by Lorenzo di Credi. He differs from Puvis as youth from age. It is the glamour of time and wisdom that haunts the work of the one; the miracle of the soul’s eternal freshness that enchants us in the other. And Denis is possessed of that blithe instinctive piety which characterizes the French race in general. At Le Vesinet, between his home at St. Germain and Paris, he has decorated two chapels in the church of Les Ortes and the chapel of the St. Croix institution for girls. An exquisite simplicity of sentiment allied to a consummate skill in the logical decorative effects characterize these expressions of radiant and joyous faith.
Can I ever forget my first introduction to the work of Denis? It was after a long and weary traversing of the galleries of the Salon, when one was sated with the plethora of profitable and unprofitable canvases, jostling one another in their eagerness to attract. When lo! a step and in the entrance to a gallery, set apart for the work of one man, one had passed into a new world. It was one in which springtime never ends; in which youth and fragrant hope and purity bloom continually. The lawns are fresh with vernal greens, starred with the gaiety of flowers. Peach and apple trees spread their gauzy veils of pink and white against the blue of an eternally cloudless sky. Maidens with soft budding forms and draperies that reflect the hues of the blossoms, shaded with lilac, stand or recline in groups, intercepting the clarity of the light with trans-parent violet shadows. They are knit to one another and to their surrounding in a naïve harmony of untroubled happiness and artless love.
Such are the aspect and expression that characterize the work of Denis, though he will sometimes introduce colors of greater warmth and positiveness, as, for instance, in the chapel of the Sacred Heart in Les Ortes, where the sky is rainbow-hued with a predominance of rich orange, melting into yellow. In his use of color he has this much of neo-impressionism, that he uses the hues pure and vitalizes them with tenderly discriminated tones. While still preserving the abstraction of his figures, he treats them with more roundness of modeling and simple naturalness of gesture and expression than are revealed in those of Puvis. Moreover, he differs from the latter in garnishing more the empty spaces. His are not empty in the more literal sense that those of Puvis are; the result in expression being that, while the latter’s have the abstraction of a far vision, Denis’ are naïve and intimate.