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Poor Fisherman

Musée d'Orsay, Paris


Puvis on Poor Fisherman:

In 1900, Puvis described the subject and meaning of this painting:

“’It isn’t a woman, but a young girl at an awkward age. The mother is dead and the little one is there to watch over her brother; she picks flowers with her little monkey hand, feverishly, mechanically. - The child who, in this strange flowerbed didn’t do as much would be unnatural. I have a horror of illustrating novels in oils, my only excuse is that I borrowed this vision of misery only from myself’.” 

Aimee Price Brown, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: the Artist and His Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 47, n 21. Originally quoted in Marius Vachon, Puvis de Chavannes un maître de son temps (Paris, 1900), 160.

Art critic Petronius Arbiter considered Puvis’s The Poor Fisherman one of his worst paintings:

“It is an absolutely trivial work; and, coming from him, was a complete surprise and much criticized at the time. In the first place the lines of the composition are so zigzag that the work is irritating instead of soothing to the eyes. Then the sprawling of the badly drawn child over a low shrub, every leaf and branch of which would prick out of it all sense of sleep or even of comfort, is absurd.Then the head of the mother is too large, and the hair that of a man rather than that of a woman. Then the man looks ‘sawed-off,’ For he is represented as standing with his knees against a seat in the boat. But where is the rest of his lower legs? The boat is either not deep enough or his lower legs are abnormally short, or sawed-off. This is also manifestly absurd. Then the head is so childishly constructed as to be ridiculous. Moreover, what is he doing – praying, fishing, philosophizing over his destiny, or what? The whole thing is childish to a degree. Here we have a meaningless ‘individuality’ with a vengeance.”

Petronius Arbiter, “A Trivial Work of Art: The Poor Fisherman by Puvis de Chavannes,” The Art World, vol. 1, no. 3 (December 1916): 202-5. 


In a 1 February 1895 letter to Paul Gauguin, Swedish writer August Strindberg expressed his admiration for Puvis’s Poor Fisherman :

“This morning I went to the Luxembourg Museum to take a look at Chavannes, who continually returns to my thoughts. I contemplated with deep sympathy The Poor Fisherman who is completely focused on catching his prey which will give him faithful love from his wife who picks flowers and from his lazy child. This is beautiful! But note that I am disturbed by the fisherman’s crown of thorns. Oh, I hate Christ and the crown of thorns. I hate them, do you understand what I mean? I don’t want to know about that pitiful God who just tolerates punishment. My God is preferably Vitsliputsli, who eats human hearts in the sunshine.”

Translated and reprinted in Gauguin i Söderhavet (Stockholm: Etnografiska Museet, 1970), 36.

Related Subjects by Other Artists:

Georges Seurat, Landscape with “The Poor Fisherman”, 1881 (Musée d’Orsay)

About the Artist

Born: Lyon, 14 December 1824
Died: Paris, 24 October 1898
Nationality: French