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Maurice Denis

French Painter, Illustrator, Theorist, and Writer

Maurice Denis Photo
Movements and Styles: Symbolism, Les Nabis, Post-Impressionism, Japonism

Born: November 25, 1870 - Granville, France

Died: November 13, 1943 - Paris, France

"I believe that art should sanctify nature."

Maurice Denis Signature

Summary of Maurice Denis

Maurice Denis is perhaps unique amongst avant-garde French painters of the late nineteenth century in combining a strong commitment to formal and stylistic innovation with an equally profound sense of the significance of tradition: in art, culture, and, perhaps above all else, religion. His boldly colored, vibrant paintings, like those of the artists with whom he is generally grouped together - Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard - express a commitment to abstraction, and to relaying the inner life of the soul, which is, at one level, quintessentially modern. But unlike his peers, the soul which Denis sought to express was integrally shaped by his religious faith which can already be sensed from his earliest paintings as a member of the Nabi group which he co-founded in 1888, and which would lead him, later in life, to activities such as church renovation and altarpiece design. By the end of his life, Denis was also renowned as an art critic, having produced a series of influential essays on aesthetics and spirituality.

Key Ideas

Along with Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard, and others Denis founded a group called "Les Nabis". whose ideas defined many of the most significant stylistic advances in modern art during the late nineteenth century. Breaking away from the emphasis on naturalistic representation of visual sensation which had preoccupied French painting since Impressionism, they focused on using bold, clearly defined blocks of color to express the inner life of their subject-matter. Though Sérusier and Bonnard are perhaps the best-known painters associated with this school, it was Maurice Denis who became their most eloquent spokesperson, laying down the ideas which united their approach in his 1890 manifesto "Definition of Neo-Traditionalism".
Denis's work from the mid-to-late 1890s onwards became increasingly defined by a more figuratively accurate, rigorous compositional style than had defined the early work of the Nabis. Initially turning to the example of Paul Cézanne - whom he hailed as the prophet of a new Classicism - to characterize his newly solid, modelled compositional style, Denis would increasingly find the inspiration for his "Neo-Classicist" approach in the art of the Italian Renaissance. In combining an engagement with the most significant recent advances in modern art with a sense of the broader historical sweep of European painting, Denis stood for an interplay of revolution and continuity in artistic style which sets his oeuvre apart. He is an example of that rare category of modern artist who views themself, first and foremost, as a guardian of tradition.
Known as the "Nabi of the Beautiful Icons" because of the beauty and spiritual intensity of his work, Denis's painting was informed by his Catholic faith early on. From religiously inflected works of the early Nabi period such as Le Mystère Catholique (1889) onwards, the spiritual overtones of Denis's art became more and more pronounced until, by the 1910s, he viewed himself above all else as religious artist. These concerns found fruition in his formation, in 1919, of the Ateliers d'Art Sacré ("Workshops of Sacred Art"), a group dedicated to the renovation of churches and cathedrals, to the design of altarpieces and murals, and to training the next generation of church craftsmen. Denis was unique amongst painters of his generation in combining a commitment to formal innovation with a traditional religious faith. As such, during the later part of his life, he fundamentally redefined the stylistic possibilities of religious art.
Maurice Denis Photo

Maurice Denis was born on November 25, 1870 in the coastal town of Granville in Normandy, where his parents had moved to escape from the Franco-Prussian War; though they would later return, with their only child, to the house of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, in the cozy suburbs of Paris. Maurice's father worked as a railway company official, and his mother was a milliner and seamstress.

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