JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 5 (pp. 59 to 81)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1997, Volume 36, Number 1, Article 5 (pp. 59 to 81)

PUVIS DE CHAVANNES'S ALLEGORICAL MURALS IN THE BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY: HISTORY, TECHNIQUE, AND CONSERVATION

TERI HENSICK, KATE OLIVIER, & GIANFRANCO POCOBENE



2 NARRATIVE OF THE MURALS

The spaces to be decorated consisted of eight arched spaces above the library's grand staircase and a large, complex-shaped wall in the loggia. Puvis was given complete artistic freedom to create a narrative for the cycle. He described the theme for his mural program as a synthesis of the intellectual holdings contained in the Boston Public Library expressed in a symbolic framework. The mural in the loggia, titled The Inspiring Muses Acclaim Genius, Messenger of Light, is a summation of the entire schema.

The Inspiring Muses(fig. 3), the largest of the murals, covers 75.25 sq. m. (660 sq. ft.); it is 4.88 m (16 ft.) high and almost 15.42 m (50 ft. 7 in.) wide. Along the top of the wall, capitals and vault supports project downward, dividing the field into five tympana. At the bottom is a centrally placed door. Puvis expressed concern about the compositional problems caused by this setting and at the possibility of having to paint separate images to fill the space. He made numerous drawings and sketches and finally chose to unify the space with one continuous scene. Above the door, a winged boy representing the Genius of Enlightenment stands on a cloud with blazing lights in his hands against a pale yellow sky that extends across all five arches. Below the sky is an expanse of deep blue water, and below that oak and laurel trees are scattered over a green field dotted with flowering bushes. The nine Muses of Inspiration, representing the various divisions of literature and the arts (Esch 1982), float above the landscape, draped in white and holding lyres and laurel branches. On either side of the door Puvis painted stone statues representing Study and Meditation in grisaille.

For the eight paintings in the staircase, each 4.37 m (14 ft. 4 in.) high by 2.18 m (7 ft. 2 in.) wide, Puvis chose subjects that represent the various spheres of human knowledge. On the south wall he painted Philosophy, Astronomy, andHistory, on the north Pastoral Poetry (Virgil), Dramatic Poetry (Aeschylus) and Epic Poetry (Homer)(fig. 4), and on the west wall, on either side of the windows that open out onto the courtyard, he painted Chemistry and Physics.


Copyright 1997 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works