The art of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes developed such a reputation for the measured nature of his art that the preeminent French Realist author and critic Emile Zola described it as “an art made of reason, passion, and will.” To the modern viewer, however, it is arguably reason that dominates Zola’s trio of descriptors. Puvis de Chavannes’ use of highly structured composition is remarkable among his peers in the community of Symbolist painters. When one compares his work The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses to the more frantic expressions of Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Odilon Redon, etc., his work stands out as far more calculated and restrained. Still, The Sacred Grove remains an exemplary accomplishment among the strain of Symbolist art that privileges the Ideal over the darker side of the Sublime.
Part of the reason Puvis de Chavannes’ work is identified as highly Idealistic is the carefully wrought structure of his work. The Sacred Grove is a prime example of this tendency. The placement of the Muses in this work is careful and deliberate to the aims of a pyramidal composition. I have written before of Puvis de Chavannes’ use of this device in my article on Young Girls by the Seaside. Though Young Girls used this pyramidal device to unique effect, the pyramid has often been used by artists such as Michelangelo and Piero Della Francesca to evoke harmony, fortitude, and triumph.
The Sacred Grove and Girls by the Seaside were far from the only instances Puvis de Chavannes employed this design element:
There are a number of further examples of Puvis de Chavannes using the pyramid in his arrangement of figures. Suffice to say, its use in The Sacred Grove was not an isolated incident among his oeuvre. I do not seek to level the charge at Puvis de Chavannes that he lacked compositional inventiveness per se. I prefer to ask the question, “what motivated Puvis de Chavannes to repeat his use of the pyramidal organization of figures so often?”
Twelve years prior to The Sacred Grove‘s undertaking in Lyon, France, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a treatise on criticism that can be of use in examining Puvis de Chavannes: The Birth of Tragedy. In it, Nietzsche supposes the existence of two discrete tendencies in artistic expression- the Apollonian, the impulse of harmony and order with a potentially unbending mathematical and logical tilt; and the Dionysian, or passionate and animated, perhaps to the point of wreckless. While these two strains were separate in Nietzsche’s mind, their synergy resulted tragedy, which he identified as the highest order of art.
Nietzsche’s observations are particularly salient in discussions of Puvis de Chavannes, as much of his art can be said to characterize that Apollonian quality of intellectual balance to the near exclusion of more chaotic yet passionate elements. Insofar as symmetry and order dominate The Sacred Grove, I propose that this piece is the high-water mark of Apollonian tendency in his oeuvre. Further, whereas Girls by the Seaside displays gestures of languid self-reflection, doubt, and ennui in its characters, The Sacred Grove situates its figures in markedly more contrived and rigid poses meant to convey unmistakable expressions of certainty, poise, and intellect. The idealism of The Sacred Grove is, in the end, remarkable for being so prima facie.
The Muses themselves- the subjects of The Sacred Grove– were in fact lead by Apollo in Classical mythology. In that context, it would seem natural that the Muses would epitomize a visually Apollonian quality. And yet other Symbolist artists occasionally explored a more melancholic or uncertain aspect of the Muses, such as Gustave Moreau did in his Hesiod and the Muse.
Beyond the lense of Nietzsche’s critical system, Puvis de Chavannes appears to approach Classicism of subject and style with a Platonistic inclination. Whereas a more tragic or comical view of the Classical Grecian gods might have suggested more lascivious or seductive characteristics in the Muses and their cohorts in this piece, Puvis de Chavannes proposes a harmonious society of enlightened and orderly figures that represents an Ideal to be glimpsed and perhaps pursued by man. These figures do not appear to be a part of the natural world that, in Puvis de Chavannes’ time, was increasingly fraught with strife and conflict.
We are left to conclude The Sacred Grove may seem out of place in the Symbolist context where uncertainty, exploration, anxiety, and tragedy were chief concerns to most of its proponents. What keeps it in company with the Symbolists of late 19th century is a longing to rebel against the rising tide of scientism and “reason” of contemporary French society. While there is a highly ordered and logical nature to this piece that dominates the mood of the painting, it does depict an antiquarian interpretation of the Ideal that proposes a perhaps Supernatural and decidedly transcendent animating force of the arts and culture which is entirely different from the Naturalistic and empirical aims of contemporaries such as Gustave Courbet, Emile Zola, and Honore de Balzac. That world of the Muses- as logically ordered as it may be- is still held out by virtue of its perfection beyond the visible. In this sense, it is moved by the Symbolist spirit.