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The Database of Ornament

    Past works have long since had their
shortcomings pointed out by every
magazine. This is very gratifying.
Frank and interesting workers of later
days have each his shortcomings
duly filed against him.

    Individual rendering in a decora-
tive form, whether in line or colour,
is daily disappearing—in the name of
France! humanity in the workman-
ship, called technique, is abandoned
—in the name of France! and the
very interest in an object that moves
the artist to its expression has gone
—also in the name of France!

    I have never understood how this
has come about: Why France, so
busy in reconstructing and beautify-
ing her public buildings with the
remembrance of her past; striving with chisel and
brush to give expression to her active present, should,
in the face of so much earnestly directed energy, create
a school of NO-INTEREST; why rumours are abroad
that certain phases of modern life only are artistic, that a
silhouette is unnecessary, and personality in the rendering

    We usually ignore, or at best, dislike, what is new until
it has ceased to be so. We have had scarcely any statuary;
have never dreamed of mural decoration. On these subjects
we are therefore uninformed, our attention going into other
channels; and a few months’ stay in an atelier, with its
blatant voyouism, is not the place in which to gather the
necessary information. In casual reviews on important
artistic events, half-facts are stated quite naively, and with
too frequent inaccuracies in mere names. So Puvis de
Chavannes is, to some, a wicked impressionist; to others, a


mere decorator, a name on Salon committees; and, generally, with few
exceptions, a somebody once vaguely heard of. I can recall only a few
honestly catalogued statements referring to him, and one intelligent,
really sympathetic, review; that by Mr. Claude Phillips. The article in
question leaves little to be said, save on the possible influence of this
great artist. I would, therefore, separately analyse his characteristics and
tendencies, which have influenced such strikingly original workers as
Bastien-Lepage, Cazin, Besnard, Renan. Though it is no easy task to
describe qualities so magnetic, so widespeading in their simple sweetness,
so largely human.

     Puvis de Chavannes’ greatest claim is the positive establishing, I
may almost say, conscious discovery, of man’s position relatively to his
natural surroundings. With the Renaissance, man and human interest
filled the given frame, and decorative space was divided to that end.
The middle Venetian school has to a great extent been bound to religious
portraiture, and its frequently low and false perspective is due to the
works, as altar pieces, being literally looked up to. This mistake has
clung to all subsequent art. The ponderous schools of historic painting,
full of crammed nothingness, influenced garrulous genre. Increased
space was utilised for introduction of more figures, and all
largeness and dignity was lost. Art became smaller, more incidental,
stupidly prolix ; and complying strictly with venerable mistakes, was
utterly void of that personality one finds in the largest decoration, or the
smallest portrait, by an old master. The decorative blot belonging to
the early simple works was lost; the clamorous crew of landscape artists
made its rediscovery seem impossible ; yet with one earnest, almost in¬
articulate artist, himself little more than a landscape painter, lingered
the possible germ. Looking naively on what he saw, man seemed a
silhouette bathed in space, pathetic by his very humbleness. I refer to
Jean Francois Millet.

    Courbet, with his powerful hand and clear-seeing eye, painted on a
canvas till he came to the edges. (This extreme was also of use.)

    Puvis de Chavannes, almost contemporary with these, was from the
first an old master; from the first had discovered the simplicity of natural
beauty, was widening his horizons; and when at last, after seven years’
refusal, admitted to the Salon, at once gave us his large and tender
poems, becoming more and more local every year, touching us more
nearly by their aspect more northern; showing eloquently the dignity of
simple daily actions, and in their large surfaces, the truth and decorative
value of the sky, knitting man to the ground to which he belongs.

    Rapt by the beauty, the supreme truth of the whole, one first feels,
then sees, the actions he has drawn. One is touched by their
naturalness; the feeling with which he treats his horizons; the broidery
of simple leaves in space; the silhouette of tree trunks, of figures in
action; the sweetness of homely weeds upon the ground, and wild
flowers growing timidly, as they do in fields.


    His large human poems, “Peace,” “War,” “Work,” “Repose,” and
“Sleep” are not works of no-interest. Large in actual surface,
highly decorative in effect, they certainly do not preach the absence of
silhouette. But by it seize and fix the attention.

    I have never been able to account for the apparent apathy in
England towards Puvis de Chavannes, that I have already remarked.
Men influenced by him have, when known, been accepted; and, unlike
some other great Frenchmen, he has exhibited in Salons. It is pathetic
to see the well-informed, the man well versed in all our artistic short¬
comings, eloquent on the largeness and naivety of great work, overawed
by the blaring orientalisms the Salon exhibits annually, the technical
accomplishment of underbred “ stuff”; and overlooking the tender poetic
work annually sent there, reflecting, though with most original treatment,
some of the qualities of Puvis de Chavannes; even overlooking the master
himself, as he tells, in language of his own, of the loveableness of woman,
the pathetic charm of extreme youth, and the voice of tree and stream.

    It perplexes me that the strange harmony, silver in colour, of his
larger works has not fixed itself in the mind of the most casual observer,
at least as something to dislike. For every Englishman is born, not
only with an ideal Shakesperian Hamlet, but also with an eye sensitive
to Venetian colour, contrived nowadays by a judicious mixture of brown
and pink.

    Puvis de Chavannes has discarded brown altogether, and all other
clumsy tone mediums; nor has he been initiated into the saving
advantages of realistic grey. His figures touch the impressionist way
of seeing, being frankly lit up by the enveloping atmosphere, and
controlled in modelling and tone by the form and colour of their

    Usually situated in a clearer atmosphere than our own, blue and
lilac predominate in his compositions. I have heard people allege this as
a reproach, as if in those two colours no harmony were possible, because
they are blue and lilac. It probably never occurred to such that here
might be a new truth; that the lilac chord, a very late one to develop,
may be what is generally called grey (commonly something between
brown and yellow).

    His harmonising influence has done much to modify impressionism,
so called, and shows how to apply many of its truths without destroying
the texture of each object into the appearance of an Axminster carpet.

    I think he best, or, at all events, most distinctly, illustrates his
tact, in the arrangement of his smaller works; where the eye, thrown on
a limited space, sees the ground as the dominant compositional quantity,
and not the sky, which plays such an important part in the construction
of his larger. The French public, having been taught the greater rarity
of his wall decorations, is strangely blind to these. No English gallery
would be prepared to give wall-space to what would get rid of so much
gold framing, and these smaller works bear more distinctly on what may


be considered art in England. Thick and assuming the appearance of
fresco elsewhere, the earnest naivety of his brushwork is easier to follow
in these works, floating lightly within an undisguised contour, pausing
tremulously on a plant, touching with a line or two a form to be

    Above all things anxious to keep the music belonging to each picture,
Puvis de Chavannes avoids the twist-of-wrist, process-like cleanliness
we are taught to consider French technique.

    With the vividness of a larger work, he shows us Orpheus weeping
Eurydice, his laurels torn, as his fingers linger expressively on his lyre;
the “Pauvre Pecheur” earnestly working, half at prayer, in simple land-
scape sweet with tiny flowers, among which play his children. Or, again,
it is “Hope,” strangely frail in her hesitating youthfulness, holding the
oak-twig she has plucked from a tomb, in strange weird surroundings of
ruin and cross-crowned tumuli.

    In the handling, his works are diametrically opposed to those of our
English Preraphaelites. While they explain their emotions, glazing
actual pieces of magnetism in the minute rendering of each part, his
poetic instincts lead him to a synthetic treatment. Yet both kinds of
work are eminently emotional, based alike on love of nature.

                                    (To be continued.)


MLA citation:

Ricketts, Charles. “Puvis de Chavannes.” The Dial, vol. 1, 1889, pp. 1-4. Dial Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.