Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
La Decollation de Saint Jean Baptiste, 1869
Oil on canvas, 49 x 65 ½ in. (124.5 x 166 cm)
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, England

Changing taste
By 1913 Puvis was an established master, though he had not always enjoyed universal acclaim. In fact, La Decollation de Saint Jean Baptiste was extremely unpopular when it was first exhibited in 1870. Deeming the figures stiff and naïve, the colors flat and unmodulated, the critics compared the canvas to Images d’Epinal, French popular prints. [1] By 1913, the same painting was praised for its  “rich color” and “dramatic force.” [2]

An important lesson

The path of Puvis’ own career assured viewers at the Armory Show that, in time, the new aesthetics of Cubism and Fauvism would become accepted and normalized within the history of art.  The Armory Show organizer Arthur B. Davies made Puvis’ place within the history of modernism explicit in his “Chronological Chart Outlining the Growth of Modern Art,” published to accompany the exhibition. [3]

Davies categorized Puvis as a classicist who provided an integral link between the Neoclassicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Fauve Henri Matisse. Contextualized in relation to the traditional and familiar, Davies presented the new movements as the culmination of a modernist progression, lending a clarity and comprehensibility to their relationships to the past.

[1] Aimee Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Vol.2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 155. The same critique was leveled against the Post-Impressionists years later.

[2] “Further Impressions of the International Show,” New-York Tribune, March 9, 1913, 6.

[3] Arthur B. Davies, “Chronological Chart,” Arts & Decoration Special Exhibition Number (March 1913): 150.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898)

The French muralist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes made his reputation in the nineteenth century by pioneering radical, innovative aesthetic constructs while working within classical and religious imagery. He was already well known in the United States by the time of the Armory Show in 1913: his paintings were reproduced in American publications, exhibited in galleries and museums, and collected by those seeking art in an inventive but acceptable modernist style. [1] His work was also a major influence on a number of American artists, including Arthur B. Davies, President of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. [2] Davies had seen a major exhibition of Puvis’s art in New York in 1888 and probably saw more of it in Paris in 1895. [3] He also owned twenty-four drawings by the French master. [4]

Davies ensured that Puvis’s work held an important place in the Armory Show. One of the organizers’ goals for the exhibition was to educate viewers on the evolution of modern art—from Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Gustave Courbet to the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and Cubists. To that end, they showed a number of historical works, and Davies devised and published a “Chronological Chart Outlining the Growth of Modern Art.” [5] Its message was that the last hundred years of art to its current stage displayed a clear progression, as one innovation led to another. The outline was meant to normalize the new and to demonstrate that many artists whose work once seemed outrageous had a later history of being acclaimed. Given his popularity in the United States and his influence on American painters, it is no surprise that Puvis was highlighted among the historical painters: fifteen works by him were included in the exhibition, all lent by American collectors.

[1] See Aimée Brown Price, “Puvis de Chavannes, Pioneer and Paragon of Modernism,” in The Armory Show at 100: Modernism and Revolution, ed. Kimberly Orcutt and Marilyn Kushner, exh. cat. (New York: New-York Historical Society, 2013).

[2] His was also a major influence on the muralists Kenyon Cox and Edwin Blashfield and the painters Arthur Wesley Dow and Maurice Prendergast. See Aimee Brown Price “Puvis de Chavannes and America,” in Toward Modern Art: From Puvis de Chavannes to Matisse and Picasso, ed. Serge Lemoine (New York: Rizzoli, 2002), 201.

[3] Price, “Puvis de Chavannes As Pioneer and Paragon of Modernism,” 233.

[4] Susan Elizabeth Earle, “Puvis de Chavannes and America: His Artistic and Critical Reception, 1875-1920” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, 1998), 272.

[5] The chart was published in Arts & Decoration 4, no. 3 (March 1913): 150.

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