This oil sketch is a study for a large painting of 1873 which now hangs in the entrance hall of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Like this work, the painting is also known as The Harvest, but it is not intended to be viewed as an image of rural life, rather it is an evocation of a golden age.
There are many differences between this quickly worked sketch and the final painting as the artist sought to find the most harmonious combination of figures, landscape and colours. When Puvis de Chavannes started work on the composition, France was just emerging from a period of political and military turmoil but the picture offers instead an idyll of peace, harmony and plenty. The world the artist has conjured into being is a timeless dream realm, part biblical and part classical.
The theme of Puvis de Chavannes’s painting is an old one. Images of summer and harvesting can be found in medieval illuminated manuscripts, and it remained a popular subject with artists from Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Nicolas Poussin onwards. In Summer, also known as ‘The Harvest’, Puvis has adapted the theme to paint not an image of rural life and work but a timeless idyll – a dream image of warmth, peace and well-being. His figures have both biblical and classical overtones, and the air of calm and bounty with which he has imbued the scene is that of a golden age.
Puvis was celebrated in his lifetime for his large, multi-figure decorative pictures. Although some were genuine frescoes, many were huge paintings on canvas that took the place of murals and were known as ‘decorations’. This picture is a study for one such work, which was bought by the French government in 1873 and which now hangs in the entrance hall of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
In the oil sketch Puvis worked out the main figure groupings and in almost chalky shades set out the colour scheme. There are, however, numerous differences between the sketch and the finished work. Puvis was clearly unhappy with the foreground composition and moved the pond and its swimmers to the middle ground, gave the landscape greater prominence but lost the pollarded tree on the right of the picture, and changed the positions of the groups of women and children. He also intensified the colours across the whole scheme, most noticeably making the sky a much richer blue, which gives the finished work the feel of one of the sixteenth-century Venetian pastoral scenes of Titian or Giorgione.
During his lifetime, Puvis was seen by some critics as France’s national painter. In 1891 the critic and historian Alphonse Germain wrote that: ‘What Rembrandt is to Holland, Puvis de Chavannes will be to France, he is ours; thanks to his "thusness", our art will become national again.’ In the years immediately before Puvis started work on Summer, France had undergone a series of upheavals: the Franco-Prussian War, which cost innumerable French lives; the capture and exile of Emperor Napoleon III; the siege of Paris and the short-lived and bloodily suppressed government of the Paris Commune. With his gentle scene he showed a timeless France outside politics and bloodshed – a welcome alternative to war and chaos.
Puvis’s painting is therefore more than just a ‘decoration’. It is a nostalgic dream of an ideal France – a form of pictorial balm – and perhaps an aspiration that the nation could return to peace and bounty once more. Although Puvis was a traditional painter, the influence of Summer can be felt in two of the most important works by leading French avant-garde painters of a younger generation: Paul Cézanne’s The Large Bathers of 1898 and Henri Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté of 1904 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). If Puvis stood outside the artistic movements of his day, they nevertheless looked at him.
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