© President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gallery Text

Important precursors of symbolism include Gustave Moreau, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, and Rodolphe Bresdin: three artists with a shared nostalgia for a mythical past. Moreau created highly wrought, sensual interpretations of mythical and religious scenes. He repeatedly depicted the sea nymph Galatea, whose story, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, warns of the nefarious effects of beauty. Rejected by Galatea, a jealous Cyclops named Polyphemus ends up killing Acis, the sea nymph’s lover, by crushing him under a rock. In Moreau’s picture, sexual desire is expressed with remarkable intensity in the monster’s lustful gaze, fixed on the sleeping nude. There is a stark contrast between his rough ugliness and the luminous beauty of Galatea’s quasi-divine body, displayed within a surreal landscape. By favoring contemplative stillness and ornamental quality over narration, Moreau emphasizes the symbolic nature of his drawing.

Puvis de Chavannes influenced the symbolists in terms of subject, composition, technique, and spirit. He was renowned for his public murals and his simplified, decorative compositions. The drawing shown here was done in preparation for an oil painting titled The Toilette of Thetys, in reference to the sea nymph from Greek mythology. The scene is meant to personify Brittany, as the heather in the seaside landscape is characteristic of that region in France. Using the tonal properties of black chalk, Puvis studied the form—and illumination—of two indolent, classicized figures harmoniously set in their natural surroundings.

Identification and Creation
Object Number
Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, French (Lyon 1824 - 1898 Paris)
Study for "In the Heather (Nymphs)"
Work Type
Physical Descriptions
Black chalk on off-white laid paper
27.6 x 32.1 cm (10 7/8 x 12 5/8 in.)
Acquisition and Rights
Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art
The Harvard Art Museums encourage the use of images found on this website for personal, noncommercial use, including educational and scholarly purposes. To request a higher resolution file of this image, please submit an online request.
Publication History

John H. Neff, Puvis de Chavannes: Three Easel Paintings, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, 1969), vol. 4, pp. 66-86, p. 79, repr. as fig. 13

Aimée Brown Price, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Volume II: A Catalogue Raisonné of the Painted Work, Yale University Press (U.S.) (New Haven, 2010), cat. no. 428b, p. 394, repr.

Exhibition History

Flowers of Evil: Symbolist Drawings, 1870–1910, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 05/21/2016 - 08/14/2016

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of European and American Art at am_europeanamerican@harvard.edu