When Pierre Puvis de Chavannes painted this preparatory painting for a mural, Les Muses Inspiratrices acclament le Génie, Messager de Lumière, he was at the peak of his fame and the most universally admired painter in the world. On 16 January 1895, exactly one week after he signed and dated the painting, Puvis' own genius was acclaimed by 550 guests at a splendid banquet at the Hôtel Continental in Paris, chaired by the sculptor Auguste Rodin, at which the entire spectrum of modern French art was represented. Seated cheek by jowl with the academicians they despised were Fantin-Latour, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, Signac, Bourdelle, Bernard, Carrière and Gauguin. Absent admirers included Degas, Munch, Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec, (though the huge parody of Puvis' mural Le bois sacré which adorned Lautrec's studio, and in which he had depicted himself from behind apparently urinating and his drunken Bohemian friends bursting into the sacred wood to cheer up Puvis' lugubrious muses, would suggest that Lautrec might have been an alarming guest on such a formal occasion), Picasso (still an unknown youth in Barcelona) and two artists who had pre-deceased their hero, Seurat and Van Gogh.
It would be hard to over estimate Puvis' influence on late 19th century Western art. His work proved a vital catalyst as early modern art moved towards flatness and simplification of form. As Vuillard later said 'The experiments in stylisation and in expressive synthesis which are typical of today's art were all present already in the art of Puvis'.
That Puvis' reputation was eventually eclipsed by those of younger artists indebted to him was largely due to the fact that he rarely painted what Burne-Jones called 'travelling pictures'. The bulk of his work does not lend itself either to the coffee-table book format or to the block-buster travelling exhibitions which have inflated the fame of so many 19th century painters. Nor is it likely that many major works by Puvis will appear at auction. From 1860 until his death in 1898, Puvis devoted his energies to the creation of large scale decorative schemes for specific public buildings. The only way to get the full measure of Puvis' genius is to travel across France to see his murals in the context of the museums and municipal buildings for which they were painted or to visit the public library in Boston, which boasts the only set of Puvis' murals outside of France.
Puvis was first approached with a request to paint murals for the staircase of the newly built Boston Public Library in 1891. Despite the generous terms offered (complete freedom in the choice of subject matter, as much time as he wished and a vast fee of 250,000 francs ($50,000) far in excess of any other commission he received), it took two years of patient negotiations to overcome Puvis' misgivings about painting murals for a building he would never see. A plaster model of the staircase was made for him and samples of the stone used sent so that he could establish a colour harmony.
In Puvis' own words he chose to 'represent in emblematic form, the ensemble of intellectual riches, united in this beautiful monument'. The first and most important of the panels Les Muses Inspiratrices, was exhibited at the Salon du Champ-de-Mars in 1895 before being shipped to Boston. Over the next year or so it was followed by eight smaller panels depicting La Poésie des Champs (Virgil), La Poésie dramatique (Aeschylus), La Poésie Épique (Homer), L'Histoire, L'Astronomie,, La Philosophie, La Chimie and La Physique. As the last of them crossed the Atlantic, Puvis remarked that he felt like a father whose daughters had entered a convent.
This elaborate sketch for the largest of the Boston murals, depicting air-borne muses in a stylised landscape, shows Puvis' mature art at its most magisterial. It demonstrates his ability to compose harmoniously over a large and in this case awkwardly shaped surface. It is also a typical example of his highly individual colour sense, famously characterized by the novelist Huysmans in a description of Puvis' Pauvre Pêcheur: 'This is a twilight painting, a painting like an old fresco, eaten away by the light of the moon, drowned by floods of rain, it is painted in lilac turning towards white, the green of a lettuce dipped in milk.'
Puvis' abilities as a colourist have often been underrated even by his greatest admirers. Gauguin paid Puvis the back-handed compliment of saying that he wanted to paint 'coloured Puvis' when he went down to Arles to visit Van Gogh. The pale and chalky colours are intended not only to simulate the effects of an old fresco and to harmonize with the surrounding stone, but also play an important role in creating the rarified and poetic atmosphere of this magical picture.
In the 1977 Puvis de Chavannes exhibition catalogue, Louise d'Argencourt wrote about this composition: 'Construite à partir d'horizontales coupées à intervalles régulieres par les verticales des arbres, la composition dans laquelle les muses sont inscrites comme des notes sur une porte, ne peut être appreciée qu'en termes musicaux: rarement dans l'oeuvre de Puvis, rythme et harmonie ne s'étaient rencontrés avec autant de bonheur.'
There are a number of drawings relating to this composition (see catalogue of the exhibition, op. cit. nos. 209-210.)
We are grateful to Patrick Bade for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.