By the time painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes died in 1898, he had become all things to all people, like a Max Beckmann or a Giorgio Morandi. French Symbolists viewed his archaizing classicism as singular in its sparse dreaminess, while French academicians saw in Puvis the continuation of an edifying, restrained painting tradition. As the art historian Jennifer L. Shaw has noted, Puvis made his most prominent works—large-scale murals in hallowed institutions such as the Sorbonne in Paris—when the country fissured between a syndicalist left and nationalist right. Today, then, Puvis’s contribution is something quaint, foregone, or even objectionable: a unifying national idiom.
This exhibition of mostly studies generously lays out the base components of that idiom. Limbs, faces, and garments line the walls, each individuated by the artist’s signature ashen contours. Compared to the vivacious sketches of Eugène Delacroix (at one point Puvis’s teacher) or the pragmatic exercises of Thomas Couture (another of the artist’s mentors), Puvis’s preparatory figures are enigmatic, even estranged—classicism after the fact. Take Ludus pro patria (étude pour un lanceur de javelot) (Patriotic Games [Study for a Javelin Thrower]), 1882, where the titular athlete never achieves monumentality, arrested as he is by a background grid. Or take Étude pour l’été (Study for Summer), ca. 1890–91, a drawing in which the creases of drapery assume more urgency than the blank expression of the nude sitter. Puvis ought to be seen in his full compositional breadth, as in the large-scale studies and mural replicas at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, but in these small works the murky desire for tradition feels all the more pointed.
When he ventures out of art-historical stock imagery however, Puvis finds something even more oneiric. A series of beguiling diminutive watercolors transforms landscape into a set of gaseous visions. Ruines dans une forêt (Ruins in a Forest), ca. 1870–90, nearly dissolves the French countryside into abstract tones. Nation-states are dreams.