This oil sketch was painted in preparation for a large picture of 1872 (now in the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts). Puvis de Chavannes used it to work out the composition and colour harmonies for a scene in which a group of girls pick flowers in a meadow, oblivious to the sleeping figure of Death.
The painter probably took the idea for the picture from a popular song composed by Schubert, Death and the Maiden. The topic was popular in the Renaissance, especially in Germany, and symbolised the inevitability of death: young or old, rich or poor, the grave awaits us all. As well as transmitting visual pleasure in the untroubled figures of the girls, the fact that Puvis painted Death asleep suggests he meant the viewer to read the painting as an appeal to make the very most of the time we have.
The theme of this painting goes back to the early sixteenth century and derives from the earlier idea of the danse macabre (dance of death), in which the figure of Death summons people from all stations of life and dances them towards the grave. It symbolised the fact that no one, king or commoner, could escape death. The maiden – a symbol of youth, beauty and purity – being confronted by Death made this grim inevitability all the more poignant.
Hans Baldung Grien, Hans Burgkmair and Barthel Beham were among the German Renaissance artists who depicted the subject, and there was renewed interest in it in the Romantic period. Franz Schubert, for example, set the theme to music in his song Der Tod und das Mädchen of 1817, which he reused later in his string quartet of 1824. Schubert’s song was well known in nineteenth-century France and probably gave Puvis de Chavannes the idea for this painting.
This small version is a study for a work of 1872 (now in the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts). It differs from earlier representations in that Puvis has treated the confrontation not as a morbid encounter but as a moment of respite – in fact, this is not really an encounter at all. He has painted not a solitary maiden but six girls who gather flowers on a hillside meadow and play together; they don't appear to have seen the figure of Death. This sense of carelessness has more in common with Nicolas Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time of about 1636 (Wallace Collection, London) than the sixteenth-century pictures with their frisson of horror.
The symbolism of Puvis’s picture is simple and pure. Death is sleeping, resting from reaping flowers, which are merely another version of the girls themselves: both are beautiful and in full bloom. As long as he sleeps the oblivious girls can enjoy their lives. The group of four in the background are jubilant and the foreground pair serene. One of them blows on a dandelion, another symbol of mortality, and while they inhabit the sunshine of the meadow, a dark wood lies just beyond. Puvis is showing us that although Death will eventually wake and claim the maidens, they – and therefore also we – should make the very most of life.
Puvis used his rapidly worked oil sketch to plot out both the general composition and the colour harmonies. He changed little in the finished painting other than moving the position of Death and swapping the colours of some of the girls’ dresses to more pastel shades. This has the effect of smoothing the flow of the viewer’s eye down the picture, making the transitions from one girl to another more musical and increasing the contrast between them and the black figure of Death.
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