Pierre PUVIS DE CHAVANNES | The poor fisherman [Le pauvre pêcheur]

France 1824 – 1898

The poor fisherman
[Le pauvre pêcheur]
oil on canvas
canvas 155.5 (h) x 192.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase from the artist 1887
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Puvis (who had studied under, among other teachers, Eugène Delacroix)1 was hailed by a younger generation of artists, including Seurat, Gauguin and Denis, as a leader of the Symbolist movement. While Puvis ardently denied any links with Symbolism, many of his works—and this one in particular—are imbued with the mystical qualities so characteristic of that style.

This monumental work shows a widowed fisherman waiting despondently for a catch while his young daughter, left to care for her baby sibling, picks flowers on the shore.2 He intended the painting as a social comment: concerned with the plight of the underprivileged, he stated that ‘the true poor people, damn it, are invisible’.3 By employing at the easel the scale and techniques he had learned as a celebrated muralist,4 he attempted to reverse this situation by elevating a scene of abject poverty to the realm of myth and history painting.

There was a polarised response to this painting’s appearance at the Salon of 1881: the young Parisian artists were excited by its departure from formalist tradition, but there was fierce criticism from some.5 Auguste Balluffe described the painting as ‘a short-hand note of a sketch.’6 Balluffe distrusted the painting’s impermanence, its simplified forms and rigid figures, its washed-out, unnatural colours and melancholic subject matter. These were precisely the elements that appealed to the artists of the avant-garde, and the broad expanses of flat colour that Puvis had borrowed from Italian fresco painting were quickly adopted by painters from Gauguin to the Nabis.

Perhaps Camille Mauclair illuminated The poor fisherman most clearly when, in 1928, he described it as:

a fatalistic poem, as simple and touching as a popular song; it is the poem of a man of sorrows, him of the past or him of the present. Never has the power of this resolutely synthetic art idiom better appeared than in this unusual painting; it has pictural charm, surely, but standing before it one forgets the painting altogether.7

Emilie Owens

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. See Stéphane Guégan’s essay 'Van Gogh and Gauguin: the resurection of Delacroix?' in Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and beyond, National Gallery of Australia, 2009 (pp. 43–55) for details on Delacroix’s influence on the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
  2. Puvis himself describes the subject as such: see Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, New York: Rizzoli International Publications Inc. 1994, p. 47.
  3. Brown Price, p. 47.
  4. Notable mural projects include The life of St Geneviève (La vie de Sainte Geneviève) 1874–78 in the Panthéon, Paris, and the cycles of allegorical murals that decorate the staircases in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, 1884–86, and the Boston Public Library, Boston,1895–96.
  5. Such a reaction was uncommon and Puvis’ work was generally very well received.
  6. Quoted in Edward Lucie-Smith, Symbolist art, London: Thames and Hudson 2001, p. 82.
  7. Quoted by Jacques Foucart, ‘The poor fisherman’, in Louise d’Argencourt, Marie-Christine Boucher, Douglas Druick et al., Puvis de Chavannes, 1824–1898, Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada 1977, p. 158.