1870 - 1943
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A brilliant pupil at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, Maurice Denis joined the Académie Julian in 1888 where his fellow-students included Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Paul Ranson, René Piot and Paul Sérusier. After a visit to Pont-Aven, Sérusier had started the Paul Gauguin art group and also brought back a small picture he had painted under Gauguin’s direct supervision which became the group’s talisman. By 1889 Denis was one of the leaders of this group born of friendships forged at the Académie Julian out of common admiration for Gauguin, and he became known as ‘the Nabi of the beautiful icons’. In 1890 Denis drew up the Nabis manifesto and published it in the journal Art et Critique. His own personality began to show more fully during his stay at Pont-Aven where he went with Paul Sérusier to meet Gauguin in 1893 to 1894. From 1895 to 1898 and again in 1904, Denis travelled in Italy where he took a particular interest in the early masters. In France he studied Ingres and Poussin. An intellectual and a keen music lover, Denis began writing and publishing studies in journals before embarking on major works such as Theories ( Théories) (1890-1910). He published New Theories ( Nouvelles Théories) in 1922 and went on to produce works devoted to a number of topics including religious art, Rome, Ingres, Symbolism, Gauguin, Sérusier. The early 20th century saw the start of his most productive period. In 1903 he visited the abbey of Beuron in Bavaria where the Benedictines formulated the principles of a religious art founded on ‘holy measures’. In 1903 Denis became a teacher at the Académie Ranson. In 1919, with Georges Desvallières, he opened the Studios of Sacred Art ( Ateliers d’Art Sacré) which attracted numerous students. He was elected to the Institut de France and made Commandeur of the Légion d’Honneur.
As an artist and art critic Denis exercised a clear influence during the early part of his career before the emergence of Fauvism in 1905 and of Cubism in 1907. At the end of the 19th century Denis offered a revolutionary example. Although he broke with academicism just as resolutely as the Impressionists had before him, from the outset his intention was to reject academicism in order to rediscover it and to reimpose the virtues of classicism. His The Choir Boy, a pastel he exhibited in 1890, shows the spiritual intentions that underpinned a large part of his later work and contributed to the renewal of religious art. For a time classified as a Symbolist, Denis also painted large, realistic compositions such as beach scenes with women bathing but free from any of the underhand eroticism of Ingres’ Turkish paintings, expressing simply a sense of the serene plenitude of life.
In his early career Denis practised a discreet pointillist divisionism and during the Nabis period he adopted an approach that viewed painting as a ‘plastic fact’ in itself, free from any anecdotal element. Then, without dismissing the notion of form, he went on to create his own style, synthesising form without relief or depth in flat tints of muted, matt tones and in accordance with Gauguin and Émile Bernard’s style which emphasised contours with outlines. Although his work is arguably closer to Puvis de Chavannes than to Gauguin, Denis set out, both in theory and in practice, one of the founding principles of 20th-century art. Alongside his general concern with modernity, this period is also marked by his taste for representing the figures of antiquity and the Gospels in contemporary form: in The Muses of 1893, the deities of ancient Greece are portrayed walking in the Bois de Boulogne and in Afternoon in a Park of 1900, the attentive figures surrounding a small child on a lawn beside an urban lake, can be seen to re-enact the mystery of the Nativity in a contemporary and domestic setting.
After 1895, back from Italy, Denis gradually moved away from strict Synthetism, and turned his attention to contemporary reality, combining in a more concrete construction of form, the style of the Quattrocento with that of Cézanne and developing the extremely pale, somewhat chalky range of colours that became the characteristic of all his archaic, Post-Symbolist work.
Denis executed a large mural decoration in the Ste-Croix du Vésinet church in 1901-1903. Other paintings of the period include: Homage to Cézanne; Our Lady at school; Family Portrait; The Beach. Denis was one of the rare decorative artists of his generation capable of tackling very large surfaces. In 1912 he painted the ceiling and friezes of the Théâtre du Champs-Élysées, built by Auguste Perret. He also painted large compositions for the church of St-Paul and the Palace of Nations in Geneva. He illustrated numerous literary works, including Paul Verlaine’s Wisdom ( Sagesse) (1891-1911), André Gide’s Urien’s Voyage ( Voyage d’Urien) (1893), The Imitation of Christ (1903), Dante’s Vita Nuova (1907), Francis of Assisi’s Fioretti (1913), Paul Claudel’s St Theresa (1916), Alfred de Vigny’s Éloa (1917), Life of St Dominic (1919), and The Book of the Eucharist (1920).
Denis exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1890 with The Choir Boy which immediately attracted attention. In 1903 he was one of the founders of the Salon d’Automne and was involved in the creation of a section devoted to religious art. He also exhibited at the Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. In 1937 he he showed some 40 works at the Petit Palais de la Ville de Paris exhibition Masters of Independent Art ( Maîtres de l’Art Indépendant). In 1980 the Musée Départemental, devoted to Maurice Denis and his time, was opened at the Prieuré de St-Germain-en-Laye, where he lived.
2001, Women in Provence and the Mediterranean (La Femme en Provence et en Méditerranée), Fondation Regards de Provence, Château de Borély, Marseilles
1924, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris
1945, Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris
1963, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi
1967, Munich museum
1970, Musée de l’Orangerie des Tuileries, Paris (on the centenary of his birth)
1971-1978, Bremen, Zurich, Copenhagen, Honfleur and Pont-Aven
1996, Musée Rollin, Autun
2003, Maurice Denis Photographer (Maurice Denis Photographe), Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montreal
2006, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (also presented at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal and the Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto)
2009, Maurice Denis, Childhoods (Maurice Denis, Enfances), Musée des Beaux-Arts Denys Puech, Rodez
2009, Maurice Denis and Brittany – the Pont-Aven Class (Maurice Denis et la Bretagne – la leçon de Pont-Aven), Musée des Beaux-Arts de Pont-Aven
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Albi (Mus. Toulouse-Lautrec): Sketches for the Ceiling of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
Autun (Mus. Rolin): Portrait of a Child with a Basket
Bayonne (Mus. Bonnat): Twilight
Beauvais (Mus. départemental de l’Oise): The Holiday Camp
Dijon (MBA): Petrarch
Limoges (Mus. Municipal de L’Évêché): Happy are Those Who are Meek; Happy are Those Who are Kind; Happy are Those Who Cry; Happy are Those Who Thirst and Hunger for Justice; Happy are Those Who are Merciful; Happy are Those Who are Pure-Hearted; Happy are Those Who are Peaceful; Happy are Those Who are Persecuted for Justice; The Beatitudes (oil/card lined/wood)
Loctudy (Manoir de Kerazan)
Nantes (MBA): The Annunciation; September Evening; La Balançoire
Neuss (Clemens-Sels Mus.): Let them come unto…(Sinite Parvulos) (1900)
Otterlo (Kröller-Müller Mus.): The Catholic Mystery (1891)
Paris (BNF): Tenderness (1883); The Pilgrims at Emmaus, 1895
Paris (MAM): The Mellerio Family (1897); Homage to Paul Cézanne (1900); Motherhood at a Window (1901); The Forum (1904); Portrait of Dom Verkade (1906); Bretonne sous la tonnelle (1906); On the Balcony, Venice (1907); Paradise (1912); The Annunciation (1913); Portrait of the Artist (1923)
Paris (Mus. d’Orsay): The Muses (1893); Degas and his Model (c. 1904)
Paris (Mus. des Arts décoratifs): Poetic Subject, September
Quimper (MBA): Breton Woman in a Boat (c. 1891-1892)
St-Germain-en-Laye (Mus. du Prieuré-Maurice-Denis): Young Girl with Lilac; Triple Portrait of Marthe the Betrothed; Ladder among the Foliage; Holy Women at the Tomb