Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, St Genevieve Provisioning Paris under Siege (1897-98). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1925. There are three vast panels, covering an entire wall of the 19th-century gallery at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. They are the full-scale preparatory drawings, or cartoons, for part of a mural series devised by French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
The series is dedicated to scenes from the life of Genevieve, patron saint of Paris (and since 1962 patron of the French security forces). The scale of execution is overwhelming, as though it had been conceived by a giant. In their epic dimensions — the figures are more than life-size — the drawings seem almost cinematic. Few cinema directors however (Andrei Tarkovsky springs to mind as an exception) could conjure such a composition, with its massed hieratic figures on the left, its strangely calm dramatic tableaus spread across the foreground, and its use of sails and vertical masts to divide up the scene. Ancient and modern — as Vincent van Gogh observed approvingly of Puvis’s work — seem to come together in a “strange and providential meeting”.
What’s being re-enacted for us here — projected, as it were, on to this vast screen — is a legendary scene from the life of the saint during the siege of Paris by Childeric, king of the Franks, in 464. The city was surrounded and the people were starving; we can see them here in the crowd on the left, some obviously distressed. Rowing at the head of 11 boats, Genevieve supposedly made it past the siege lines and brought food back to the city from Troyes. She appears in the middle of the central image aboard her vessel. Others are bringing bags of grain ashore from the boats. As it turned out, Childeric was impressed by Genevieve’s heroism and the saint became an intermediary between the conquering king and the city.
It’s a story from a far distant time. But Puvis’s murals of the life of Genevieve were conceived in the wake of another much more recent siege. Puvis imagined these scenes not long after the 1870-71 siege of Paris during the Franco-Prus- sian war, a goal of which was to starve the city’s inhabitants into submission. Parallels between the two sieges would not have been invisible to contemporary viewers.
The murals were commissioned for the walls of the Pantheon, the secular temple to French worthies that had once been a church dedicated to St Genevieve. Paid for by the public purse, the Pantheon murals were primarily nationalistic rather than religious: they were meant to perform (among other things) the useful public function of nationalising the citizens who were their audience. But they also spoke to older memories: Genevieve was seen as a protector over the city, and for centuries had been prayed to at moments of national disaster.
The murals are still there. When American author Willa Cather saw them as a student, she decided she wanted to write like this, “something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment”. Cather was not the only modern to have been influenced by Puvis. He may have been an odd sort of old master, his formal training patchy and his interpretation of classical themes unorthodox, but later artists including Gauguin and van Gogh claimed him as a forerunner of their own.
Distemper, pencil and chalk on canvas