Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis




College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Andrew Graciano


While certainly not lost to the history of art, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes has never enjoyed the status of the titans of the modern canon who openly expressed their indebtedness to him. Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and so many other artists known to the general public the world over paid tribute to the artist once dubbed “The Painter of France” at a banquet held in his honor to coincide with a retrospective exhibition on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.

Interestingly enough, defenders of the old, academic guard, such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Alexandre Cabanel, and Jean-Léon Gérôme also held Puvis in high esteem, despite their pronounced opposition to the avant-garde. Thinkers on both sides of the political spectrum, from the socialist Gustave Geffroy to the nationalist Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé saw Puvis’s oeuvre as symbolic of their definitions of Frenchness, strikingly different as they were.

I argue that Puvis’s broad appeal is largely due to the qualities of his canvases that critic Alphonse de Calonne described as “for the viewer.” This evaluation refers to the fact that his compositions are ambiguous enough for those who consume them to project their own ideas onto their dreamlike realms, which would, understandably, prove satisfying. Such satisfaction is partly derived from a compositional device Puvis developed during a time when he was not working on the murals for which he was so famous. Instead, he was painting private easel works during a period of his career when public commissions were difficult to come by.

These works were marked by extreme isolation and despair due to their environments bearing down harshly on their human figures. The murals that followed inverted that composition, instead having the human figures encircle the space they inhabit. Two of those later murals by Puvis debuted in the early 1890s as part of the decorative cycle for an entrance to the restored Hôtel de Ville—a civic location meant to welcome all citizens of France. In that context, the murals’ being “for the viewer” is not only expected, but appropriate. These murals by Puvis are, in essence, imbued with significance by the countless viewers who see them, thereby genuinely establishing him “The Painter of France.”