Maurice Denis - Biography and Legacy
French Painter, Illustrator, Theorist, and Writer
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.
Raised in a catholic household, Denis was informed by religious feelings, and by a passion and talent for art, from an early age. As a teenager, he often visited churches and cathedrals, and came to admire the work of Fra Angelico; at the age of thirteen, he began to take drawing classes, making sketches from the Old Masters in the Louvre. By the age of fifteen, he was writing it his diary: "Yes, it is necessary that I am a Christian painter, that I celebrate all the miracles of Christianity". Coming from a well-off family, Denis received a classical education at the Lycee Condorcet, one of the most prestigious high schools in Paris, where he met fellow artists and future Nabis Édouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel. By all accounts, Denis was an excellent student, receiving numerous distinctions, but in 1888 he left the school to enroll at the Académie Julian, the private art school of the painter and teacher Rodolphe Julian, which had produced many notable painters across the nineteenth century; the following year, Denis was accepted into the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts.
Early training and work
At the Académie Julian, Denis studied alongside his old school friends Vuillard and Roussel. He also befriended two artists who would go on to be centrally involved in the formation of the Nabi group, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Sérusier. At this time, Denis was deeply influenced by the Symbolist movement, in particular the work of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, which he had first seen in an 1887 exhibition, and Paul Gauguin, whose first exhibition at the Café Volpini in 1889 was a revelation to Denis. One day in 1888, Sérusier showed his friends at Julian a painting he had made under the guidance of Gauguin earlier that year in Pont-Aven, a district of rural Britanny which had hosted various artists' groupings since the 1860s, and where the older painter, Gauguin, had based himself intermittently since 1886. Denis and his friends were so amazed by Sérusier's work - a small landscape painted on the back of a cigar-box - that they formed an artistic movement based on the new artistic vision which it seemed to capture, naming themselves, after the Hebrew term for "prophet", "Les Nabis". They accorded such power to Sérusier's particular painting that it became known as The Talisman. Following Gaugin's example, this group of young French painters, including Sérusier, Denis, Bonnard, Vuillard, Roussel, and others, freed themselves from the task of meticulously representing visual sensation which had preoccupied French art since Impressionism. Instead, they attempted to capture the spiritual and emotional content of their subject-matter - often of landscapes - giving their work a spiritual flavor preempted in certain respects by Symbolist painting. Rejecting ideas of linear perspectives and modeling, the Nabis also drew inspiration from the decorative arts and - partly via Gauguin - from Japonism, then approaching the height of its fashion in Europe.
As well as producing a series of highly experimental paintings during the late 1880s and early 1890s, Maurice Denis quickly established himself as the most eloquent theorist of the Nabis. His first article on the new style, "Definition of Neo-Traditionalism", was published in Art et Critique in 1890, and was taken as a kind of manifesto for the group. In it, Denis rejects Impressionism's obsession with naturalistic accuracy, and defends the idea of the spiritual function of art. His famous opening quote established the Nabis as the forerunners of all subsequent experiments in pictorial abstraction over the next half-century: "it should be remembered that a picture - before being a warhorse, a nude, or an anecdote of some sort - is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order".
Denis was nicknamed the "Nabi of the beautiful icons", because of his compulsion towards a kind of religious iconography informed by his Catholicism, very different from the unorthodox or theosophical Spirituality which influenced other members of the Nabi group. Nonetheless, between 1888 and 1893, Denis exhibited many times with the other group members, and during this period, a commonality of approach remained. In June 1893, Denis married the musician Marthe Meurier, having completed many portraits of her, and proclaimed his love for her repeatedly in his diaries, since meeting her in 1890. Love, spirituality, religion, Marthe: these were Denis's preferred subject-matters during the early days of the Nabis, and they would remain so for the rest of his life. In the mid-1890s, Denis became more influenced by the decorative arts - already a key influence on the Nabi movement, which placed a stress on 'style' absent from the Impressionist credo - in line with the advent of the Art Nouveau movement in Brussels and Paris. Denis was interested in the interplay between art, architecture, and design, particularly in religious settings, and undertook various commissions to decorate churches and private houses, while increasingly incorporating purely decorative features into his paintings. He also explored various strands of commercial design, devising patterns and models for carpets, ceramics, stained-glass windows, screens, and fans. Denis made illustrations for books by Symbolist writers, including an edition of Paul Verlaine's Sagesse, and frontispieces for musical scores, notably for Claude Debussy.
Trips to Italy in 1895, 1897, and 1898 would play an important part in Denis's life and artistic development, taking his work in a new direction that increasingly isolated him from the Nabis. From this time onwards, this work began to show the influence of Italian Renaissance masters such as Raphael and Michelangelo more clearly. By the late 1890s, in any case, the Nabis - who were never a movement in the true sense, more a loose association of like-minded individuals - had already drifted apart, and Denis began to distance himself from his former friends. From Rome, he wrote to Vuillard about the importance of classicism and of Raphael, eliciting a shocked and negative response from his old friend.
During his 1898 trip to Italy, Denis met up with his friend the writer Andre Gide, a sometime collaborator, and an ardent defender of Classicism. Their discussions shored up Denis's belief in the necessity of a return to Classical principles in art: as the critic Gerard Vaughan notes, "both the writer and the visual artist played important roles in the creation of French Neo-classicism and both came to regard France as the natural heir to Greek and Roman antiquity". Denis was also a great admirer of Cézanne, who had rejected Impressionism's emphasis on the interplay of color in favor of a compositional approach based on the depiction of solid, sculptural forms; Denis considered Cézanne the true founder of contemporary Neo-classicist art.
In the tumultuous socio-political context of early twentieth-century France, championing Catholicism also had its political resonances. Denis was drawn towards the case for the prosecution in the Dreyfus Affair, when a young French Army Officer of Jewish extraction, Alfred Dreyfus, was twice falsely convicted of treason. If this lined Denis up alongside the forces of conservatism and antisemitism in late nineteenth-century French society, his connection from 1904 to 1927 to the ultra-right-wing political movement Action Francaise, which emerged from the ashes of the collapsed Dreyfus case, confirmed his allegiances. Denis's reputation as an avant-garde artist was somewhat tarnished by these associations, but his position as a critic and theorist remained strong. When Henri Matisse emerged as the leading exponent of Fauvism, an artistic movement focused on capturing the vibrancy of color which was, in a sense, the natural inheritor of the Nabis' approach, Denis became his most outspoken critic, disparaging Matisse for an overly-theorized avant-garde approach. He criticized Matisse's famous 1905 painting Woman in Hat, for example, for its lack of emotional content, and the rivalry between the two painters would also be played out in the competitive world of Russian art patronage, with the famous collectors Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin stockpiling Denis and Matisse works across the 1900s-10s.
When Denis was forty-one, his father died, an event that had a great personal impact on the artist. In 1914, he bought the former hospital of Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, renaming it The Priory and renovating the building with frescos and stained-glass windows, a task which preoccupied him until 1928.
In 1919, after twenty-six years of marriage, Denis's wife passed way. Heartbroken, he painted a chapel in her memory. The same year, he founded the Ateliers d'Art Sacré (literally "Workshops of Sacred Art") with Georges Desvallières. The aim of this group was to reconcile religious faith with modern culture by producing art for religious settings - churches, cathedrals - which would dispense with the academicism and realism of previous approaches to such work, and to train a new generation of religious artists and craftsmen. The group renovated several churches between 1919 and the mid-1930s, when a lack of commissions forced them to disband. Amongst their most notable commissions was a set of paintings for the Église du Saint-Esprit in Paris, completed in 1934. Although Denis's work from this period was profoundly influenced by his faith, he also produced murals for civic buildings across the 1920s-30s.
In 1921, when Denis was 51 years old, he returned to Italy with one of his daughters. On this trip he met Elisabeth Graterolleore, whom he would marry the following year. The first of Maurice and Elisabeth's two children was born in 1922. Between 1936 and 1939, Denis created several decorative panels for the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Already well-regarded as a painter and decorative artist, towards the end of his life Denis published several important articles on aesthetics.
Denis continued to paint prolifically in his old age: in total, he finished over twenty mural projects between 1916 and 1943. That year, still involved in various creative and academic projects, Denis was run over by a car, and died on the way to the hospital.
The Legacy of Maurice Denis
Maurice Denis was a vital figure during the transitional period between Impressionism and the radical abstraction of early twentieth-century modern art. Although by the end of his life he was chiefly known as one of the most respected art critics in Europe, today he is generally regarded as the last 'Great French Painter' still awaiting rediscovery.
Denis was an influential figure within several overlapping artistic movements of the late-nineteenth century: Symbolism, Post-Impressionism, Japonism, Neo-Traditionalism, Neo-Classicism, and Synthetism. His work of the 1880s-90s, and his iconic manifesto of 1890, anticipated the move towards pictorial abstraction that would become the fundamental feature of modern painting from Cubism onwards, while his students included the post-Cubist and Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka, who credited him with teaching her "the craft of painting". At the same time, Denis stands out for his advocacy of tradition - both artistic and cultural - in an era often defined by its radical antipathy to the past. In his "Definition of Neo-Traditionalism", he had proclaimed that "everything is contained in the beauty of the work", emphasizing a timeless ideal of beauty which set his approach apart from the "progressive" formalism of Neo-Impressionists such as Georges Seurat.
As both a devout Catholic and a modern artist of great vision and skill, Denis also helped to redefine Religious art, bringing it back to the forefront of creative advances in the visual and decorative fields, a position it had arguably not occupied since the era of Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Denis's influence in this regard can be sensed in the spiritual approach of many subsequent modern artists, including Wassily Kandinsky, whose hugely influential tract Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) might not have been written without the formative example of Denis's theories. Subsequent modern art groupings, from the De Stijl movement of 1910s Holland to the Abstract Expressionist movement of 1950s New York, also took their cue in part from the Denis's conceptual integration of visual abstraction and spiritual expressiveness. In this sense, Denis's influence on the story of modern art - or at least the influence of the ideal for which he stood - can be sensed almost everywhere.