Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 94 x 280 cm
Signed: lower-left: Puvis de Chavannes
Lazare Weiller; by descent.
(select)A. Michel, “Exposition de M. Puvis de Chavannes,” Gazette des beaux-arts, 1888; J. Buisson, “Puvis de Chavannes, Souvenirs Intimes,” Gazette des beaux-arts, 1899; Marius Vachon, Puvis de Chavannes,1900; Camille Mauclair, Puvis de Chavannes, Paris, 1928; The Toledo Museum of Art, European Paintings, Toledo, 1976); Louise d’Argencourt, Puvis de Chavannes, 1824–1898, Exh. cat., Grand Palais, Paris and Ottawa, 1977; Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Exh. cat., Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1994; From Puvis de Chavannes to Matisse and Picasso: Toward Modern Art, Exh. cat. Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2002; Louise d’Argencourt, Puvis de Chavannes: Une voie singulière au siècle de l’Impressionnisme, Exh. cat., Musée de Picardie. Amiens, 2005; Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work; Yale University Press, New Haven, 2010, Volume II, catalogue no. 289.
(select): Paris, Durand-Ruel, 1887, no. 35 as Pro Patria Ludus; Paris, Durand-Ruel, “Exposition de tableaux, esquisses & dessins de Puvis de Chavannes,” June–July 1899, as Ludus pro Patria; Paris, Hotel Drouot, November 1901, no. 38 as LaFamille.
Puvis de Chavannes authored large-scale public murals that profoundly influenced the course of French art; at Impressionism’s conception he was France’s greatest living artist. His easel paintings were for the most part far rarer: Puvis produced only three private commissions during his career in addition to sketches and recordos of his grand friezes. A critic remarked: “Puvis de Chavannes’s large murals are the event of the Salon… One wants to see them as the revival of monumental art.” Indeed they were – speaking in easily readable figures and themes to not only the French public, but also deeply impacting younger artists’ visions. (As quoted and translated from Le Correspondant in Puvis de Chavannes by Aimee Brown Price).
Though Puvis usually remained extremely faithful to his original idea in replicas, the artist diverged in both his tonality, use of line, and attention to detail in the surrounding foliage in this version of Meditation; the smaller figure is less flat and strictly two-dimensional in feeling, as befits a free-standing easel painting, compared to the more mural-like Vignon group Meditation today in the Musée d’Orsay.
Le Sommeil depicts clusters. In a larger sense, the painting is about the group assembled in the right foreground – are representative of the ages of man. A second band of figures somewhat farther back at left. The figures are very much one with the land. The idyllic landscape contributes to the sense that with its poetic sensibility, seems to be at least in part about. Action community, not war, but preventative preparative defence of community and family—political landscape of the time.
Its classical origin notwithstanding, Puvis eliminated specific references to literature and narrow meaning in his oil sketches and subsequently in the finished canvas. He thus made it an allegory rather than a history painting.
In the years preceding the creation of Le Sommeil, Puvis had embarked on a series of large, generalized, allegorical paintings for his first public murals. These included, among others, such traditional subjects as Bellum and Concordia (War and Peace), of 1861; Le Travail and Le Repos (Work and Rest) of 1863; and La Contemplation and L’Étude (Contemplation and Study) of 1864 (all at the Musée de Picardie, Amiens). For his monumental he followed the readily acceptable classicising vocabulary of draped and semi-draped figures in a landscape setting that he had formulated for his large wall paintings.
In preparation for executing this, Puvis de Chavannes produced more than his usual number of preparatory drawings and oil sketches. Indeed, he must have always had a special fondness for for after the definitive painting was completed, he executed not only a reduced version of the painting, but a number of variants on paper, several of which are dedicated and must have been presentation pieces. The oil sketch here presented is the largest in a sequence of works in which Puvis developed his pictorial idea.
In his oil sketches, Puvis tried out various compositions before committing himself to one to be executed on a grand scale. They were also important in establishing a color range and color harmonies, which in turn were significant in the establishment of mood, that would further the meaning of various iconographies. Indeed, only after having decided on the appearance of his final picture and its colors through these sketches would he execute careful drawings of individual figures, participants in the definitive canvas. At their best, the oil sketches (“esquisses”) are notable for a sparkling freshness, a certain spontaneity and immediacy, much as that of a drawn “croquis” or “étude.” Because of their lack of finish, there is also an openness and expansiveness, that connoisseurs admire in them.
In 1861–65 and 1879–82 Puvis executed a group of large, decorative paintings for the Musée de Picardie, Amiens. Cider and The River (26.46.1–2) are studies for the first murals he painted for the museum. This picture is a smaller replica of the artist’s last project for Amiens: a work commissioned in 1879, exhibited in the Salon of 1882, and installed in the museum in 1888.
Ludus pro patria depicts a subject from the early history of the province of Picardy. In the center, young athletes, like the ancient Greeks, train with lances, or “picques,” in French. A weapon preferred by ancient inhabitants of the region, the picque is the root word for Picardy.
The present oil sketch for this is clearly a composition in progress, that would be pruned of redundancies to become visually and iconographically more legible. The shifting of figures is interesting to see, as Puvis honed his pictorial and compositional ideas, always simplifying, and strengthening his composition. Thus, a semi-draped woman in a watchful, generally upright position, perhaps a vigilant sentinel, and the sole non-sleeping figure in this sketch, was brought from the centre of the smaller work to be marginalised and bracket the composition at the far right – only to be eliminated entirely from the 1867 Salon painting, when the artist must have decided that the figure was not in keeping with the others. So, too, a single figure who lies near the base of the tree at centre was to be edited out. Both sketches include deer in the middle distance. The earlier rendering affords them pride of place at the centre of the canvas with two of the animals near a pool of water in the forest clearing; they too were to go. But it is in the landscape, particularly, that modifications were to be made. In the earlier sketch there is a mountainous outcropping at far left, and great shrubs, bushes and trees, against which figures are posed. In the current oil sketch, landscape elements have been modified. While still forested, doubtless for reasons of pictorial legibility and simplification, this canvas is no longer densely wooded. That Puvis worried about the grove of trees at the centre of his composition is readily demonstrated by the black chalk modifications still very visible, where he experimented with extending and lengthening the tree trunks and painting them in various colours. But the most notable difference in this sequence of compositions is the inclusion here of the setting sun (we presume it is not the moon). It not only fixes the time of day as twilight, presumably nightfall – though with poetic uncertainty it may be dawn or dusk – but serves with its subtle half light to illuminate the trees and recumbent figures to the right. But in this fading light, landscape and figures become increasingly more difficult to differentiate in the middle and background and thus share an elemental oneness. The summit of the sun’s orb, a great arch over the water on the horizon, provides a shape that nicely contrasts to that of the figures and landscape elements. The landscape would continue to undergo change. The large, definitive work would be sparsely vegetated and arid, its colour no longer the lush blues seen here. Puvis must have been pleased with the dimensions of this oil sketch for he made his late version of the composition of similar size (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art).
This oil sketch is notable for its colour casts of lush blue-green and tonalities of tawny golds. In the 1860s Puvis experimented with color, producing monumental murals with color chords keyed to their surrounds; and monochromatic decorations in roses, pewter gray, and blue hues. The reigning blue and gold tonalities of this oil sketch lend a sense of unreality and enchantment to Le Sommeil. Its colors are notably similar to that of Fantasy (La Fantaisie) of 1867 (Ohara Museum, Kurashiki), itself compared when it was first exhibited by critics who did not know how to explain what was perceived as the strangeness of its hues, to majolica. Through the sequence of oil sketches and works on paper that Puvis so assiduously worked on in connection with Le Sommeil, he varied his colors and their range as much as he was to modify the composition itself. In this sketch, a number of figures are deftly outlined with subtle colors broadly laid in. In another version, silvery neutral colors prevail. The apparent thrust of these changes was towards creating an atmosphere that furthered the sense of the theme of his work and was thus integral to it.
Landscape played an increasingly important part in Puvis de Chavannes’s paintings, as he came to construct compositions in which all the pictorial components were carefully considered as shapes on the pictorial surface. Landscape and figurative elements were enlisted mutually to reinforce one another in the creation of rhythmic patterns. Puvis would frequently introduce a horizontal background stretch of sea or waterway in his paintings, such as that in Le Sommeil.