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

A melancholy fisherman stands in his boat on the shore of a bleak landscape. Recently widowed, his two children can be seen behind him; the elder picks flowers while a baby sleeps wrapped in a red blanket. The man stands in a prayer-like pose, eyes downcast. His net is cast in an expanse of still, lifeless water.

The artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, intended this painting as a social comment. He was deeply concerned about the plight of the underprivileged and raised this scene of abject poverty to the status of history or religious painting through its sheer size.

A celebrated muralist, Puvis de Chavannes often worked on such a monumental scale. His use of broad expanses of flat colour was influenced by Italian fresco painting. When it was painted in 1881, the lack of traditional perspective in this work attracted much criticism. The artist’s compositional technique, however, was quickly adopted by other younger painters of the avant-garde. These included Gauguin and the Nabis group, who wanted to convey a more dramatic emotional reality in their works.

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