Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) was revered and was arguably the most influential artist of his time. Yet today his name is not known to the public as are the names of Van Gogh, Monet nor even Rodin. His style and mood was somewhere between the Academy artists Bouguereau and Gerome on one hand and the Impressionists Manet and Degas on the other. This made his work a model for many younger artists who wanted to retain the ideals of tradition while experimenting with a different approach to painting. Historians tend to make the error of giving the Impressionists too much credit while overlooking the influence of Chavannes, Camille Corot, likely the most influential landscape painter of the period, has suffered similar neglect.
The history of modern art tends to be accounted for in linear terms which supposedly starts with Impressionism followed by Post-Impressionism; it continues with Cubism and abstraction. This account has always been problematic because it does not explain for the content, mood and style of many works created in the early 20th century. The catalogue Toward Modern Art from the major exhibition of Chavannes’ work at the Plazzo Grassi in 2002, set out to rehabilitate Chavannes’ position in history. The curator of the exhibit proposed that “modern art does not descend, as is commonly thought, from Manet and Impressionism, but from the French painter Puvis de Chavannes.” The catalogue is excellent, the documentation is extensive and there are many works in the book that I had not seen before.
Judging from the sales of reproductions and the number of copies made by admiring artists, Hope was Chavannes’ most popular work. Most of Chavannes’ paintings are multi-figure compositions, with the figures interacting within a landscape, Hope differs from this format in that a single figure is engaged with the viewer. Chavannes also did a clothed version of the painting but the clothed figure never received the admiration that the nude version brought. Clothing grounded the figure in banal reality, the nude figure was better “suited” to reflect the ideals such as hope that stand outside of rationalism and materialism.
Paul Gauguin, who is famous for his paintings of Tahitian islanders included a reproduction of Hope in a still life he painted in 1901. Gauguin was disillusioned with the modernization of the world, he withdrew to the primitive environment of Polynesia and found inspiration from the peaceful vision of Chavannes. The long frieze compositions and flat uniform colors of Chavannes can be found in the major compositions of Gauguin’s late period as in the masterpiece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Many artists were fond of Chavannes’ work although often little influence from the master is apparent in their work. Van Gogh seemed to find the peace and harmony in Chavannes’ painting Pleasant Land which he lacked in his troubled soul. In June 1890, just one month before he shot himself to death, Van Gogh shared his feelings for Chavannes’ painting in a letter to his sister Wilhelmina, “There is a superb picture…. All of humanity, all of nature simplified… one gets the feeling of being present at a rebirth, total but benevolent, of all the things one should have believed in, should have wished for…a strange and happy meeting of very distant antiquities and crude modernity.”
Throughout Pablo Picasso’s life he painted figures, very often they were bathers. There are striking similarities between Picasso’s Woman and Child by the Sea and Chavannes’ Charity. So long after Picasso’s stint with Cubism (which was likely a way to appeal to the alienated tastes of modern patrons), the influence of Chavannes remained.
The account of history can have a profound effect upon the perspective of succeeding generations. Since contemporary art is taught to have its origin in impressionism, art is generally thought of in aesthetic terms. But this perspective is oblivious to the essence of art. An artist is not just a person who makes an aesthetic record (as did the Impressionists) of the existing reality that he or she stands before. Rather, nature for the artist is a medium by which a truth or idea can be expressed. Since ancient times, art was related to religion in that it expressed the meanings of human existence. The nude was once a way to depict the soul, but since the superficial aesthetic perspective has prevailed, the body is more often seen as an object to satisfy lust. Chavannes is usually classified as a symbolist, since he was almost written out of history. Since the art critic Clement Greenberg claimed that “subject matter or content becomes something to be avoided like a plague,” the essence of art which is symbolic fell into obscurity by the mid 20th century.