Pierre Puvis de Chavannes
(Lyon, 1824-1898, Paris)
The Prodigal Son, 1879
Oil on panel, 130 x 96 cm
Signed & dated lower left: P. Puvis de Chavannes 1879

"War" and "Peace" launched Chavannes on his career as a mural painter, taking him from Amiens via Marseilles to the great Paris works in the Sorbonne, in the Hôtel de Ville and in the Pantheon etc. Among these highly demanding projects, aiming at "animer les murailles", the easel paintings seem like brief pauses for rest. Chavannes never set up his easel outdoor like the Impressionists, but, being an avid walker, stored up visual impressions in his memory. Questioned by Vachon, his biographer, regarding the "Prodigal Son", he said laughing that he really only wanted to paint the pigs, studies of which he had made in the country in 1878. He said nothing of the repentant self-communion of the poor sinner, so modestly expressed with the crossed hands of the figure driven to the limits of life. As a person, Chavannes eschewed rhetoric, and as a painter, extravagant gestures. And yet the elegiac tone is there, indeed being echoed in the same way in the "Poor Fisherman" of the Louvre, painted two years later. The abandonment of the human figure is matched by the silver-grey of dying nature, redolent of Corot, whom Chavannes so admired, and which does not deny the muralist with its rhythmically sweeping composition.