Nineteenth Century French Studies 32.3 & 4 (2004) 379-380
[Access article in PDF]
At the time of his death in 1898, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes was the most broadly accepted of artists in France. He was admired by both conservative and avant-garde critics and by an equally broad range of artists. This grand reputation appeared to be eclipsed by the modernist developments of the first half of the twentieth century when he was noted mostly as a transition to artists such as Maurice Denis. Merely a secondary Symbolist? More distance in time and more study of that elusive move-ment called Symbolism has brought renewed prominence to Puvis. The international extravaganza for 2002 at Venice's Palazzo Grassi exhibition space was De Puvis de Chavannes à Matisse et Picasso: Vers l'art modern. The exhaustive, six pound, 567 page catalogue began with a tree tracing Puvis' influence across boundaries of nation and style, insisting that he is the father of modernism, of much more formal innovation than the pale palette of Maurice Denis.
Puvis' prominence is illuminated in a totally different way by Jennifer Shaw's book, Dream States. As she studies the critical reception of some of his major pieces and puts them into their political and social context, she demonstrates why he was so broadly appreciated in his own time. The variety of interpretations that his work evoked delineate the issues between royalists, republicans, and radicals in the debate over the idea of the French nation during early years of the Third Republic. The book is not a catalogue or a biography. Those already exist. Instead we have a series of closely linked essays exploring works that were particularly important in evoking ideas about France from distinguished critics. Shaw's basic format is a close reading of both the work under consideration and its contemporary critical commentary, all carefully tempered by perspectives from political, literary and psychological concerns of the time. Shaw strives to keep formalism and cultural studies together by hunting for "the social meanings of the formal properties themselves" (9).
She introduces her method by considering two easel paintings, "Women by the Sea" (1879) and "The Poor Fisherman" (1881), both heavily discussed in the press, often in terms of the dreamlike states they evoke. Her point here is that critics of every ilk depended on their felt reaction to a work rather than on academic criteria. The Baudelairian response to the sensual and allusive nature of form has become the pre-eminent mode of criticism, even among wildly defensive academicians. The sensuous and material qualities of the work generate feelings which allow its viewer fantasies or dreams. It is these varied dreams about or fantasies of France that will concern Shaw as she looks at a group of murals by Puvis.
The pieces intended for the major staircase of the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Lyon attract her because the particular images clearly divided the opinion of the press according to their nationalist ideals. The murals were exhibited at the Salon in Paris before being fixed to the spots for which they were commissioned. "The Sacred Grove Dear to the Arts and the Muses" appeared in 1884 to much confusion about the [End Page 379] meaning of the apparent allegory. No explanation had been offered and no easily legible meaning could be read. Critics were thrown into subjective response. "Ancient Vision" with its dreamy antiquity and "Christian Inspiration" with its busy monastic scene were exhibited in the Salon of 1886. Shaw found conservative critics more friendly to the Christian cloister, its hierarchical, purposeful and masculine mode, its religious base. On the other hand, republicans saw themselves challenged to recapture the sense of peace and plenitude caught by Ancient Vision. And so political visions were argued through preferences in taste.
The other murals that Shaw considers are "The Sorbonne," installed in the Grand Amphithéâtre de la Sorbonne...