Young women grooming themselves at the water’s edge is a familiar trope in European painting. The historical roots of the subject reach at least as far as Ovid’s Metamorphosis and his account of the Goddess Diana glimpsed bathing with her nymphs by Actaeon. Picked up and enriched by artists from Titian to Matisse, this theme is often explored as “bathers.” Indeed, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes painted bathers by the river himself. Young Girls By the Seaside, however, stands out as a unique and intriguing adaptation.
Young Girls is composed of three women: one faces the viewer but seems to gaze languidly beyond, the central figure faces the Sea, and a third lies on her side staring somewhere the viewer cannot see as most of her face is obscured. The sun sets over the Sea. Dry looking grasses and sparse shrubs and flowers are scattered on the ground and hillside.
A pyramidal composition is quite pronounced in this piece by the paucity of mise en scene. There simply is not much else in the picture besides the women, and their placement in a triangular relationship is an interesting device. Some of the most famous works of European art have used the pyramidal construct to convey a sense of harmony, fortitude, confidence, triumphal mood, etc., including the Mona Lisa, Raphael’s Madonna and Child variations, Michelangelo’s Pieta, and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. A personal favorite example is Piero Della Francesca’s Resurrection (see below); the use of the pyramid as an evocation of power and triumph matches the subject so perfectly, it is a shining example of a masterful fusion of form and subject.
What makes de Chavannes’ use of this compositional device remarkable in Young Girls is that the triangle itself is linked metaphysically to symbols of power, given its geometrically formidable nature. Yet there is something markedly vulnerable about the Young Girls pictured: the young woman on the left’s expression appears anything but powerful, evoking more of a sense of wistful introspection or perhaps even boredom. There’s a stark juxtaposition here between the strength invoked by the triangle of women and the simultaneous fragility of youth and beauty on display. The suppleness of the central figure’s muscles in her arms, the sheen of her fair hair, the smoothness of her complexion, and the gentleness of her curves all are recognizable features of transitory youth. This sensation is amplified by the uncertainty in the woman on the left’s expression. There is nothing prideful or gloating about her character, despite her obvious beauty. The viewer is left wondering if the other two women carry the same distant expressions- is the woman in the center preening boastfully as she strokes her long hair, or is she conscientious of its delicacy?
The placement of the Young Girls by the seaside may tell us something about the less-than-celebratory expressions of these women. The immense, methodical, tireless, and seemingly endless expanse and motion of the sea is a daunting and confrontational symbol. Facing the enormity of the sea places mortal youthfulness is an uncertain and diminished roll- a mortal life seems much smaller in stature cast against enormity of the Ocean. The sea is one of the closest things to timelessness and eternity humanity can witness, and the endless march of the tide is a stark reminder that time is constantly passing. This ontological confrontation between delicate mortal youth and the expansive forces of space, time, and inhuman natural power lends this work of Puvis de Chavannes a profound and sympathetic quality. At any and every stage of life, we are all the Young Girls in this picture.
In conclusion, Young Girls By the Seaside stands out from much of Puvis de Chavannes’ oeuvre. His fame has diminished over the decades partly because he often depicted a certain rigidity of idealism and naïvety that the current of successive art and criticism has moved far away from. That rigidity is often reflected in the somewhat stiff and contrived poses of his characters who typically appear frozen in time, more like statues than living beings. Indeed, he often depicted the Olympian gods, demigods, angels, and mythological beings that are themselves immortal and outside of time. Young Girls, in strong contrast to that tendency, is a touching, sensitive depiction of frail mortality put in its broader context of eternity. Ironically, it is the firm placement of these women in their spot in time and space that makes this work of de Chavannes more timeless than many of his immortal gods.