Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Redeemed from Aesthetic Limbo: Aimée Price Brown on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes

The leading Puvis scholar discusses her 40 years’ work on the French master culminating in the publication of a long-awaited catalogue raisonné. Interview by CHRISTINA KEE

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Poor Fisherman, 1881. Oil on canvas, 59-7/8 x 74-7/8 inches.  Musée d'Orsay.  ABP 272
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Poor Fisherman, 1881. Oil on canvas, 59-7/8 x 74-7/8 inches. Musée d'Orsay. ABP 272

You write in the introduction that your research on Puvis began–  close to 40 years ago–  with the image of The Poor Fisherman. How did this catalogue raisonné come to be?
I was interested in tracking down this odd painting because it didn’t fit in with anything else I really knew in 19th-century painting. It was just curiosity to begin with – Puvis’ name cropped up everywhere, so I started to try and find out who had anything to say, and would it help me figure out this painting? And in fact it became more elusive, because there was too much said but not enough that was really explained. Had I known this at the outset, I might have said “Ok, your curiosity won’t be sated…” and then proceeded a bit differently.At that time, however, I applied for and got a Fulbright to study Puvis and I simply started figuring out what works I could find – without a set idea of what I was going to write about. During that first year, when I was very energetic, I was actually looking in the phone books in Paris, and seeing if there were any Puvis family. I found some, and I started writing very polite French letters of inquiry. Basically at a point I just struck it rich. Many of the Puvis relatives were curious about why I would be interested; this was in the mid sixties, no one had ever approached them. They were sort of intrigued by me, I think, and would say “cousin so-and-so” might have something, so I just began to take inventories of various holdings. At the time I didn’t have enough money to even photograph all the pictures, I made little drawings, so as not to waste film.

And yet, your instinct from the get go was to catalog.
Well, more to take stock, very simply, to know what he did,. A lot of the works were new to me and much of it had never been published.  I got my doctorate, and then was asked to write the catalog essay for the Puvis exhibition in  Paris and Ottawa  in ‘76, and then later, in 1994, by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to do an exhibition. By then I’d had three children, and I was teaching. I wrote a number of articles as well on various aspects of Puvis’ work ; on his caricatures, and allegorical figures, and I gave talks on different issues that were brought  up  by his work, like the decorative aesthetic he developed, what it is to be a mural instead of a painting.  I had always worked with the intention of writing a book, and together with my publisher we arrived at this format–a monograph, a critical biography of Puvis to contextualize his life and art, his circle of friends, the art and artists he knew, and then the catalog of works–some years ago.

Given that there really wasn’t extensive contemporary work done on Puvis, did the project of a catalogue raisonné raise any specific pressures, or challenges?
I think the way to start with any artist is to find out what the artist painted, in toto. It’s very perilous, I think, to make judgments about what an artist is driving at by looking at only one work, without knowing the full range- the full “arc” of the thing, as they say in theatre. I would also include drawings and as far as possible an artist’s entire output.   It’s hard to know what to discard, without doing the legwork.  In order to make judgments on really what an artist is about you have to separate the fakes, the forgeries, from the authentic. There were many fakes done during Puvis’ lifetime, when he was famous.

I wonder if he is an artist that is uncommonly well-served by a catalogue raisonné? There is so much that might come as a surprise to readers: The caricatures he did throughout his life, for example, and the religious works. I’m not sure many people think of Puvis as such a rounded character, but the artist you present here, especially through his correspondence, is funny, warm, even conflicted about his own work.
I was very relieved to find his caricatures, because I didn’t want him to be the stuffy, aloof, cool person that he was sometimes thought to be, and also to find the early works, and to see the drama that he was trying to work with, which was in vogue then. I learned that an artist should be considered as speaking in various “languages”; that there is a kind of analogy between everyday language or slang with your friends – those would be the caricatures – and then there’s the more formal language, which had to be dignified in the late 19th Century for public works. I think it’s important to be able to view artists as being able to speak these languages at once – it’s not just about developing from one thing to another.

I got the impression that Puvis moved quite self-consciously through these various decisions, types, styles. That comes across both through his letters, and the contemporaneous critical sources you quote, weighing in on the validity of his classical style, or whether or not he could even paint.
I think it’s important to understand how people perceived him at the time; it’s a whole other endeavor to understand later reactions. You mentioned that there hadn’t been much written about him, that’s absolutely true, between the time of his death, when his fame plummeted, and more recently. There is the exception of a wonderful article, which I mention, from 1946, by Robert Goldwater, his Puvis de Chavannes: Some Reasons for a Reputation, which was based on the idea that people were completely conflicted as to whether he was terrible or wonderful, depending on where they were coming from, just as critics are today. Though I don’t know today if there is an artist who provokes such an incredible range of reaction, from pro to con.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and Muses, ca.1884-9.  Oil on canvas, 36-1/2 x 91 inches.  Art Institute of Chicago.  ABP 304
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and Muses, ca.1884-9. Oil on canvas, 36-1/2 x 91 inches. Art Institute of Chicago. ABP 304

I hadn’t known he was largely a self-taught artist: he’s not at all a product of the academy, however strong the visual associations might be nowadays to something academic.
In a way he wasn’t channeled – like many great artists he had to ignore, or overcome, what he was taught. That is, he had to work out the best way to proceed without relying on the way his immediate predecessors were, for example, making murals  It’s a very hard question, really, and one of personal interest, what the training of an artist is or should be, and the degree to which people are submitting to authorities, how they are told art should be done.

Despite the book being rich in biographical and historical information, you also advance a number of critical points as to how Puvis’ work might now be viewed and thought about – this is not a neutral art historical text in any sense of the word.
…and I thought I was being restrained!

I recorded one passage from the introduction: “Puvis has been an enigma, without a satisfactory label, considered an anomaly, and relegated to an aesthetic limbo. But as an artist of major importance to the imagery of late 19th- and early 20th-century painting, this surely indicates an overhaul of the art-historical grid – which has commenced – is long overdue.”
It’s a tall order to say that Puvis has not been understood correctly because we have not been looking at him in the correct terms, but you make the case, for example, for his being a major pictorial innovator of the 19th Century.
Well, I really was puzzled by why he had been shunted aside within the field. There has been a whole industry of examining the impressionists, with minor impressionists, minor-minor impressionists, etc.  – and I like impressionism as much as the next person – but there is a way of teaching, in terms of movements, that can be very limiting. Each time you label something as one thing of course you are emphasizing some aspects and de-emphasizing other things. I believe that a good way to do art history –  and I didn’t initially plan my own project this way –  is to start with the works, with no preconceptions about how they fit into categories, and in a way work inductively.  When I set out to look at Puvis’ works this way, it proved so much more illuminating than if I had thought: “Okay, he does isolated figures.  Let me go look for other isolated figures… ” and set off to reinforce what I know about this painting. I really did, in a sense, set off blindly into this project, to find as much as I could, and then see what I could make of it.

Puvis, in a sense, is the perfect artist for the approach you describe, because he does, subtly, cross so many boundaries that are used to set one movement or style apart from another. The painter you present wasn’t just cranking out classical-looking works. You actually describe classicism as a sort of “decoy”.
Classicism was extremely acceptable, and  under that rubric or classicizing imagery  he could experiment in ways that people might not have liked, using other kinds of imagery. I think a lot about classicism – in a globalized world why does it have this pull to people who have all kinds of backgrounds – it has to do with a person’s education, and what is considered great,   important, or has cachet,  and what is to be celebrated in terms of imagery.

Puvis’ relationship to allegory is another theme developed throughout the book.
I think that this aspect of Puvis’work might now seem the most passé. For example “Vigilance” – which is represented as a female figure tantamount to the statue of Liberty.  I don’t really know to what extent the Statue of Liberty is effective either, in the sense that a woman in a toga holding up a lantern is effective as representing liberty, and I’m not sure to the extent that the allegorical nature of Puvis’ work is persuasive, just as I’m not sure how persuasive the statue of liberty is, though beloved.

The question you raise of mural painting vs. easel painting is an interesting one.  You suggest, if I’m not mistaken, that Puvis’ work within the confines of mural conventions fed directly into the more modern aspects of his painting.
Absolutely. I think he simplified, he flattened, he made shapes distinct,  he produced painted surfaces that were scumbled and matte so they didn’t reflect light. Perhaps most importantly he set up a certain rhythm.  I think that was largely a question of the murals – and architecture.  He took his pacing in his mural compositions from the architectural surrounds – and these were grand buildings,  often beaux-arts buildings. By rhythms I mean everything from the way images are placed next to one another, or far from one another, in a compositional sense.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Portrait of the Artist (unfinished), ca. 1883-7.  Oil on canvas, 24 x 18-1/2.  Musée d'Orsay, on loan to the Musée de Pacardie.  ABP 316
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Portrait of the Artist (unfinished), ca. 1883-7. Oil on canvas, 24 x 18-1/2. Musée d'Orsay, on loan to the Musée de Pacardie. ABP 316

You describe him as a “painter’s painter”. Having completed this research, do you see Puvis on the outskirts, or is he mainstream? For such a grand painter, he has an almost outsider quality.
Well he hasn’t been part of the canon.  In his time he was viewed as both being very acceptable, on the face of it, and at the same time very unacceptable because he was seen as so strange. There were painters who knew how to look and saw that he was innovative, and so he remained to cognoscenti,  even when he had fallen from fame, after the First World War. Picasso was certainly looking at him, in his classicizing phase. So he was a painter’s painter in that respect – and continued to be because he offered something that other artists didn’t. Puvis almost became a kind of Poussin who was more acceptable for a while, lighter, brighter.
I would say Puvis fits the term because he is someone who is looked at by other painters at any given time, not necessarily based on reputation. Painters are people doing their own judging: perhaps taking in his colors, or his serenity – that very willful serenity – and wondering, How did he achieve that?

What’s next for you?
There is a totally different project in the works that might lead to an exhibition – not bound by a single artist, country or even century, but instead thematic in nature. I’ve been telling people the new book will be slim – with wide margins! Hopefully it will take me somewhere different. Part of why I did Puvis in the first place is because he wasn’t typical of a 19th- century artist.

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: Yale University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780300115710,  box set, two volumes, 750 pp. 1200 illustrations, $250

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Young Girls by the Sea (small version), ca. 1879.  Oil on canvas, 24 x 18-1/2.  Musée d'Orsay.  ABP 256
click to enlarge