Paul Chenavard, “Divine Tragedia”, 1865-1869, Oil on Canvas, 400 x 550 cm, Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay), France
Born in December of 1808 in the city of Lyon, Paul-Marc-Joseph Chenavard was a French painter who believed art’s goal was the advancement of society’s welfare and cultural development. A philosopher as well as a painter, he was well read and traveled. Throughout his life, Chenavard maintained a personal connection with both artistic and missionary groups.
Chenavard initially entered the Palais Saint-Pierre, now the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon, where he studied alongside painter Joseph Benoit Gulchard, born in Lyon in November of 1806. Chenavard and Gulchard left the Palais in 1824 and took classes under classical sculptor Jean-François Legendre-Héral.
In 1825, Paul Chenavard entered Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts where he studied in the studio of Neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a historical painter best known for his portraits. Gulchard, with the assistance of the painters Paul-Jean and Hippolyte Flandrin, later entered the Paris studio of Ingres in 1827. In that year, Chenavard traveled to Italy where he first encountered the works of Michelangelo and other Renaissance masters.
Chenavard created a relatively small body of distinctively styled work that reflect the influences he encounterd during his trip to Italy. In 1888, he produced a charcoal drawing “The Last Judgement”, a densely packed scene of contorted bodies, horn-blowing angels and the crowned Archangel Michael. At the top of the scene is Christ depicted without the traditional halo, a statement of Chenavard’s humanistic beliefs.
Paul Chenavard also created a large mural design entitled “The Battle Between the Gods of Olympus and the Giants”. The tableau, likely a presentational work, was executed on four sheets with architectural details pasted at the top. Similar in style to “The Last Judgement”, it contains a scene full of figures engaged in battle. Chenavard’s drawings, most likely an allegory of philosophical references, were exhibited at the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris and are currently housed in Lyon’s Musée des Beaux-Arts.
After the 1848 Revolution, Charles Blanc, the Director of Fine Arts reporting to the Minister of Public Instruction, commissioned a decoraton from Chenavard for the Paris Pantheon, which was to serve as a temple of humanity. For this project, Chenavard designed a mosaic for the main feature which would present an impartial treatment of all religious traditions. However in December of 1851, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte returned the Pantheon back to the authority of the Catholic Church, thus the project was abandoned.
For the 1869 Paris Salon, Paul Chenavard returned to the idea of illustrating religion’s history. He created his “Divine Tragedia” as a counterpoint to Dante Alighieri’s 1308-1321 “The Divine Comedy”. Accompanied with a booklet of commentary, Chenavard’s tableau was met with incomprehension from both the public and critics. It was considered too complex and overly filled with references to multiple philosophical ideas.
Chenavard’s “Divine Tragedia” was purchased by the French government which designated the Musée du Louvre as the responsible organism for the work. Given to the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, the tableau was only exhibited for a short time until the museum’s 1974 exhibition. The “Divine Tragedia” was housed at the Louvre from 1974 to 1986, at which time it was added to the collection of the Musée d’Orsay.
Paul-Marc-Joseph Chenavard died in Paris in 1895 at the age of eighty-seven. His body in interred at the new Cimetière de Loyasee at Lyon.
Top Insert Image: Portrait of Paul Chenavard from Édouard Baldus’s “Histoire de Artisted Vivants”, 1852, Albumen Print from Wet Collodion Negative, 17.6 x 13.2 cm, Alma Kroeger Fund