Text by Geoffrey Smith
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Commissioned in 1883 by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon for the main staircase of the museum, this huge painting, on canvas, first appeared at the 1884 Paris Salon before installation in Lyon in August of that year. Decorations for public buildings were required to have some sort of underlying didactic function – in this case an allegory of French creativity – but observers and critics had some problems in unravelling the allegorical building blocks of Puvis' composition.
We are given few clues as to the meaning behind the piece as most of the languid figures are devoid of any 'attribute' or accompanying symbol save for the Lyre being played by one of the two levitating Muses and the painter's palette placed near the group of five Muses – which is hardly given much prominence. A young boy gives flowers to the central seated member of this group; the gift may be associated with fertility. But it seems that Puvis is not working in the conventional allegorical manner; he is more interested in creating a mood of reflection. The viewer is presented with a dreamscape exuding 'the deep peace of serene solitude'. Puvis is not concerned with precise definitions, he is presenting us with a general evocation of tranquility – a decorative arrangement of figures (seemingly engaged in some sort of gestural dance) within a serene landscape.
It is interesting to learn that the artist Suzanne Valadon posed for all of the figures in the painting; This would, in part, account for the uniformity of the figures.
The critic Gustave Geffroy saw that the Muses had 'No precise action, no definite occupation' ... their 'physiognomy speaks of a rest that nothing can disturb' they appear in 'this silent wood like visions of a dream' lit by 'the light of disappeared dawns.' Another critic, Henri Fouquier wrote that 'Instead of searching for an ideal that is impossible to attain' Puvis de Chavannes 'contents himself with evoking the notion in our minds. He leaves us, in sum, to make three-quarters of the painting'.
The image for the original version of this work in Lyon is not available so I have used a slightly cropped image from a later version now in the Chicago Art Institute which matches the iconography of the original painting in Lyon.
Georges Seurat: Bathers at Asniéres, London, National Gallery
John Singer Sargent: Madame X, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art