The exhibition “Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: Works on Paper and Paintings” at Michael Werner Gallery in Manhattan is a major event, or at least a major rarity. It gathers together nearly 90 works — mostly on paper with some small paintings — by the 19th-century French painter (1824-98), whose mellifluous name can be more familiar than his artistic achievement.
For me at least, Puvis de Chavannes — that is, POO-vee de sha-VAHN, or simply Puvis — has always wafted in the background in the history of modernism, sounding exotic, perfumed, and usually cited as an influence on the Post-Impressionists and beyond.
When you see Puvis’s frieze-like oils in pale, fresco tones with idealized figures dressed in the gowns and togas of Ancient Greece, his importance is initially hard to fathom. At a time when the painting of everyday life was gaining speed, he was opting for antiquity.
It doesn’t help that there’s never been a museum retrospective of his work in the United States; the last one in North America was at the National Gallery of Canada in 1977, organized by the art historian and curator Louise d’Argencourt, who also assembled the current display and wrote the catalog with Bertrand Puvis de Chavannes, the artist’s great-grand nephew. The last Puvis retrospective anywhere was in 1994 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art — just a few minutes’ walk from this show — Puvis is usually found close to the pantheon but never quite in it. That is, several of his paintings — currently five — hang just outside the main galleries of 19th-century European painting in a broad corridor where the unfortunate mood is consistently: “Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.” He keeps company with an assortment of realists, academics and Symbolists and an obstacle course of sculptures by August Rodin, including a bust of Puvis himself.
He was born in Lyon to a vaguely noble family of means and was supposed to become, like his father, an engineer. But drawing was an obsession, as indicated at Werner by a skillful portrait from his teenage years of the French poet Lamartine, lavishly attired and brooding beside a bush. After his father died in 1843, Puvis dedicated himself to art, visiting Italy, where he was transfixed by the art of the Renaissance. He studied briefly with a few painters, including Eugène Delacroix and Thomas Couture, but otherwise had very little formal training.
During his lifetime and after, Puvis was often dismissed as an anomalous relic. For one thing, he was embraced by French officialdom and became primarily a painter of murals, mostly in public buildings and museums. With his neo-Classical gravity and Greco-Roman themes, he was no firebrand; a young Toulouse-Lautrec painted a nasty parody of his canvas “The Sacred Grove, Beloved of Arts and Muses,” invaded by a crowd of Parisians in black top hats and suit coats. Yet Puvis offered younger artists a way beyond the improvisatory flourishes and pure observation of Impressionism.
He was especially admired by Seurat and Gauguin, and also Cézanne, and later, Matisse and Picasso as well as the perennially underestimated American Maurice Prendergast. In their works and that of many others, you’ll find different combinations of Puvis’s carefully calibrated compositions; flat, unmodeled figures and restrained poses; shallow landscape space; chalky unified color; and unshowy yet remarkably lively brushwork. Van Gogh called him “the master of all of us.” Unsurprisingly, Puvis’s reputation was at its height at the time of his death, in 1898.
The Werner show gives you a sense of Puvis’s deliberation, the way he worked up motifs in drawing, and also his range. A charcoal, “Study for ‘The Poor Fisherman,’” has an uncharacteristic graphic freedom, while a rendering of a man’s arm is a tour de force of fastidious description and shading, and equally out of character. Winding through three rooms and a hallway, the show is piecemeal, like sifting among alternately random and related works in an artist’s flat files.
Especially notable are four studies in oil or watercolor for “L’été,” completed in 1891, with different landscapes and arrangements of bathers. A river seems to run between them, but it is blanked out by a central rectangle — a doorway.
Numerous efforts evoke the future. Puvis’s somewhat mannered three-quarters view of a woman’s head (in pencil, 1898) conjures John Graham’s paintings of wild-eyed enchantresses from the 1920s and ’30s. So does Puvis’s early oil portrait of a relatively contemporary-looking woman in profile in sumptuous orange and aqua. Do the groups of bathers in the “L’été” studies presage the waterside loungers in Matisse’s 1905 masterpiece “Joy of Life?” That’s a good guess: It’s reproduced in the catalog.
It’s our luck that this exhibition is so near the Met, since several of its drawings concern the Puvis paintings on view there, most precisely in a drawing of a reclining male, seen from the back, who reappears near the center of the somnolent figures in “Sleep.” The painting summarizes both Puvis’s disciplined pursuit of the figure and the freshness it allowed his painted version.
The drawings at Werner open up Puvis’s paintings, talents and importance to a new clarity. In lieu of a formal retrospective, this is a great gift.
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: Works on Paper and Paintings
Through Feb. 16. Michael Werner, 4 East 77th Street, Manhattan; 212-988-1623, michaelwerner.com.