French Painter, Illustrator, Theorist, and Writer
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.
- 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.
Biography of Maurice Denis
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.
Important Art by Maurice Denis
Painted when Denis was just 18 years old, this work depicts a Catholic ceremony celebrating one of the Christian mysteries, the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. It shows two children carrying large candles, a woman clothed in white whose head is framed by a golden aureole, and a priest holding a copy of the Bible. Denis explored this subject across six different works, this painting, from 1889, being the second and most famous of them. In composing this piece, Denis arrived at a new synthetic language for his art, the precursor of the visual vocabulary which he would continue to refine across the remainder of his life.
The painting offers a deeply personal vision of the Annunciation, which is reenvisaged in a conspicuously modern context, the altar boys and priest symbolizing the angels, the lissom lady in white as the Virgin Mary, her hand resting suggestively on her stomach. The painting's dreamlike colors, and the otherworldly delicacy and grace of the figures, emphasizes the spiritual content of the scene. These qualities partly take a cue from the new collective approach of the Nabis. At the same time, we can sense in the painting's color-palette the influence of the early Renaissance painter Fra Angelico, one of Denis's artistic masters, who had composed a famous Annunciation scene for the convent of San Marco in Florence. In Fra Angelico's work, Denis noted, "lighting is diffused", "daylight is white", and "shadows are non-existent" - we can see similar tonal affects at work in his own painting.
Le Mystere Catholique is, amongst other things, a significant early example of the work associated with the Nabis, who abandoned the Post-Impressionist concern with naturalistic recreation of visual sensation - a concern most strikingly borne out in the Pointillism of Suerat - in favor of vibrant colors and figurative abstraction which would capture the sensual and emotional content of the subject-matter. At the same time, the painting shows the deep religious belief which informed Denis's art from the earliest phase of his career - his sense that art should "celebrate all the miracles of Christianity" - which would later place him at odds with many of the most significant developments in modern art.
At first glance, this painting seems to consist of various amorphous patches of color - red, blue, black - faintly outlined in white, and devoid of obvious figurative content or implied three-dimensional form. However, the title guides the viewer to interpret the work as showing a sunlit terrace: more specifically, the painting depicts the seventeenth-century terrace of the Chateau de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where Denis was living at the time of composition. The light of the sun appears as a monochrome patch of bright red on orange ground, the tree leaves as a single, dark green shape, the sky as an enclosed patch of blue. Blobs of red, blending in with the red of the sunlight, reprsent a group of figures in the background; one form, perhaps female, stands out in orange in the foreground.
This work is an early product of Denis's Nabi period. As such, it seems to put into practice a statement from his famous "Definition of Neo-Traditionalism", published the same year: that a painting is, before anything else, "a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order". Like all the Nabi painters, Denis was a fervent admirer of Gauguin, and this piece's emphasis on pure color is a clear nod to the master, though this influence is combined with a number of others. The choice of colors, for example, and the organic shapes, also generate a curious, proto-Expressionist intensity reminiscent of the work of Symbolist painters such as Odilon Redon. The influence of Japanese woodblock prints is clear from the extreme flatness of the composition, and in the use of a small number of clearly distinguished shapes.
Sunlight on the Terrace was never exhibited, as Denis considered it the document of an experiment rather than a finished work. In retrospect, however, it seems to predict the movement towards a purer, more extreme form of abstraction which would characterize a whole range of post-Nabi art in France, perhaps especially the Fauvist paintings of Matisse and others. As regards Denis's own artistic development, this painting seems to point to a possible movement towards extreme abstraction which Denis would not, in fact, follow through on.
The two sisters shown in this painting are depicted in an abstract, stylized manner, their facial expressions greatly simplified, their hair pulled up in buns, their fingers elongated; surrounding them is a decorative, floral border which, in true modernist style, is integrated into the main body of the painting itself.
The appearance and body language of the women alludes to the movement of Japonism -engagement with the art and design traditions of Japan - which had influenced a whole swath of European art across the second half of the nineteenth century, and was reaching the peak of its cultural currency by the time this painting was composed. Denis's Japonism indicates one of the key stylistic influences on his early-1890s work, and on the work of the Nabis in general. Even prior to the foundation of that group in 1888, however Denis was already a committed Japonist, having studied a catalogue of Japanese art published by the influential art dealer Siegfried Bing, and set about attempting to combine the Symbolist style of Pierre Puvis de Chavanne with a vibrancy of color influenced by Japanese style. Denis had also integrated the motif of the oriental fan - introduced into French painting by the Impressionist Edgard Degas, who had used fans as paintings surfaces since the 1870s - into his work as early as 1884.
In this sense, The Two Sisters indicates a general stylistic trend within French painting of the 1880s-90s. But the outward influence of Japonism should not obscure the deeper formal and emotional concerns of this painting. The shapes, colors, and facial expressions depicted, that is, indicate Denis's underlying concern with capturing the invisible world of moral ideas and spiritual sensations in the outward appearance of his subjects. The flatness of the picture plane, the use of simplified shapes and uniform patches of color, the delicacy of the figures' apparent movements and expressions are also intended to convey the archetypal language of the inner self which Denis was concerned with capturing. This was a concern he shared with the Nabis as a group, but which was made more pronounced by his intense religious faith.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Maurice Denis
- Maurice Denis: Le Spirituel Dans l'ArtOur PickBy Jean-Paul Bouillon / 2006
- Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical AnthologyOur PickBy Henri Dorra
- Maurice Denis: Earthly Paradise (1870-1943)Our PickBy Jean-Paul Bouillon, Sylvie Patry and others
- Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890-1930By Gloria Groom, Nicholas Watkins and others
- The NabisOur PickBy Albert Kostenevitch