The Poor Fisherman was the first of Puvis de Chavannes' paintings to be bought by the State. But the work sparked a lively reaction at the Salon of 1881 and was not bought until 1887 when it was again shown to the public by the art dealer Durand-Ruel. So it took six years for a national museum to dare to show this radical painting that was so unrealistic in the light of the conventions of the time.
Without recourse to literal description, Puvis intended to give a view of desolation and resignation by painting a widower and his two children in a bleak landscape. The choice of the fisherman has obvious Biblical resonances. In 1881, the synthetic nature of the painting, its refusal of any modelling and traditional perspective, and its range of greenish hues, ranged most of the critics against the artist.
The writer Huysmans compared it to a picture from missal or the dull, flat frescoes of the past. On the other hand, some artists of the younger generation, from Seurat to Gauguin and Maurice Denis, not to mention Picasso, were enthusiastic over the extreme, poignant bareness of this silent image. Puvis became the leading light of the new style of painting.