Maurice Denis - French Painter (1870 - 1943) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Maurice Denis - French Painter (1870 - 1943)

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Se rappeler qu'un tableau - avant d'être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue, ou une quelconque anecdote – est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées.
Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.

- Maurice Denis: 'Definition du neo-traditionism', Art et Critique, 1890.

This short statement, written when Maurice Denis was just 20 years old, would have a great influence upon the art movements of the early 20th Century, including surrealism, cubism and avant-garde.

Maurice Denis might not be a household name in the same way as Monet or Cézanne, yet his paintings certainly make an eloquent, beautiful case for this French painter's name to become as celebrated as his more famous contemporaries.


Maurice Denis was born on 25 November, 1870, in Granville, a coastal town in Normandy. Although he was brought up in Saint-Germain-en-Laye (a town just west of Paris where he lived throughout his life), his deep love of the seaside and the coast would be demonstrated in many of his paintings.

The Denis family were fairly well off, and thus the young Maurice was able to attend both the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julien.

Denis lived through a fairly turbulent period in French history. As a teenager, he often visited churches and cathedrals. Being a highly artistic, perceptive boy, seeing such beautiful examples of religious art must have had a great effect upon him. At the age of 15 he wrote in his journal:

Oui, il faut que je sois peintre chrétien, que je célèbre tous ces miracles du Christianism, je sens qu'il faut.
Yes, it's necessary that I am a Christian painter, that I celebrate all the miracles of Christianity, I feel it's necessary.
- Connaissance des Arts: Maurice Denis, P29.

He was certainly not a starving, struggling painter (like Van Gogh, for example), managing to support a family of nine children from his work as an artist. Indeed, in the years between the two world wars, he was very much in demand both for his paintings and for his murals, which he painted inside churches and civil buildings. As well as being a prolific painter, Denis was also a writer. He wrote much about the theory of painting and kept a journal throughout his life.

Le Nabi aux Belles Icônes

Maurice Denis became known as the Le Nabi aux Belles Icôns, 'The Prophet of Beautiful Icons', due to his love of symbolism in painting.

Les Nabis were formed in 1890 and consisted of the school friends Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Ranson, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and Paul Sérusier. Nabi is an old Hebrew word meaning 'prophet'; as they wished to create new forms of art and expression, they thought Nabis (Prophets) would be a suitable title for the group.

Paul Sérusier went to the picturesque village in Brittany called Pont-Aven in 1888. Post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin had arrived in Pont-Aven in 1886, which galvanised the small group of painters who were already there into producing ever more creative work. Between the years 1886 and 1896, over 20 painters of different nationalities gathered under Gauguin's leadership. They were to become known as the 'Pont-Aven School'. It was under Gauguin's guidance that Sérusier produced Le Talisman, the painting which was to become instrumental in the forming of Les Nabis. Le Talisman was painted upon wood instead of canvas and was an explosion of bright, vibrant colours.

Under Les Nabis' new aesthetic, perspective was to be forgotten and colours were to dazzle, to blaze brightly on the canvas. They were aiming for a kind of 'hyper reality'. The words Gauguin said to Sérusier became integral to their whole philosophy:

Comment voyez vous cet arbre? Il est vert? Mettez donc du vert, le plus beau vert de votre palette - et cette ombre, plutôt bleue? Ne craignez pas de la peindre aussi bleue que possible.
How do you see this tree? It is green? Take your green then, the most beautiful green in your palette - and this shadow, rather blue? Don't be afraid to paint it as blue as possible.

Young and idealistic, this group of painters believed in the power of art to change the world. Art was not to be realistic but expressionistic, a way of capturing a mood in paint.

Indeed, Les Nabis sought to combine the decorative spirit of art nouveau with classical and religious iconography. This can be seen done to great effect in Denis's triple portrait of Marthe, Fiancée painted in 1892. Emotions and feelings were to be developed and expressed through art. As Denis wrote in his journal:

Toute œuvre d'art est une transposition, une caricature, l'équivalent passionné d'une sensation reçue.
Every work of art is a transposition, a caricature, the passionate equivalent of a received sensation.

Les Nabis were together for ten years, from 1890 to 1900, when increasing artistic differences eventually drove the group apart.


Amour, amour, amour. Tout comme ça elle est. – Love, love, love. All like that she is.

Denis and Marthe Meunier met in 1890, the year Les Nabis formed. The worlds of mysticism, religion and love were to combine in the form of Marthe. A highly religious man, Denis believed Marthe was choisie par Dieu, chosen by God, to guide and inspire him in his artistry. Inspire him she certainly did, she appeared in countless paintings, her face portrayed soft and serene.

In 1893, Denis and Marthe married. This was the year he painted Les Arbres Verts (The Green Trees), the painting which he would never sell, and would keep to the end of his life. Denis painted his wife in all sorts of poses. She appeared as a princess in the tower, as a lady in the forest, or holding one of their children.

La première période de ma peinture, c'est l'amour, l'émerveillement devant la beauté de la femme et l'enfant.
The first period of painting was love, amazement in front of the beauty of the woman and the child.
- Connaissance des Arts: Maurice Denis, P11.

Denis's paintings of Marthe holding their children beautifully combine the intense personal emotion he experienced as Marthe gave birth to each of their seven children.


Italy was to prove a turning point in Denis's artistic career. He visited Tuscany in 1895, and was deeply affected by the colours and light of the Tuscan countryside. He later wrote in his journal:

D'une incomparable pureté, vraie lumière du Paradis.
Of an incomparable purity, a true light of paradise.
- Connaissance des Arts: Maurice Denis, P11.

In 1898, Denis went to Rome. The painter was profoundly influenced by viewing the paintings of Raphael and Michelangelo. This trip paved the way towards a more classical style in his works and marked the beginning of the end of Les Nabis.

Ça que fait l'importance d'une œuvre d'art, c'est la puissance de la volonté de l'artiste.
That which creates a work of art is the power and the will of the artist.
- Connaissance des Arts: Maurice Denis, P11.

After his trip to Rome, Denis wrote in his journal:

Il faut devenir classique par nature.
It is necessary to become traditional by nature.
- Connaissance des Arts: Maurice Denis, P12.

In 1900 he painted Hommage à Cézanne, Homage to Cézanne; the careful composition in this painting reflecting Denis's desire for classical order, harmony and clarity.


Brittany was the terre oú on prie, 'land where you prayed'. With its wild coastline and Celtic crosses, Denis took his family on many holidays there. He depicted these in some of his later paintings, especially those done after his trip to Italy which inspired him to paint in a newly-classical form. The sea and the sand are so vividly depicted in these paintings that when you are standing in front of the painting, you can almost smell the surf and hear seagulls circling high above. As we have already read, Denis was an extremely religious man who believed Brittany to be the birthplace of legends and religion. Indeed, it is one of the places associated with King Arthur, who, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, was raised by relatives in Brittany. Denis may have lived in a town near Paris, but he always said his heart belonged to Brittany. Writing in his journal, he said:

Je serais Breton aussi. Je ne suis que Gravellnois – c'est toujours la baie de Saint Michel et de Saint Malo.
I want to be a Breton as well. I am not only of Granville, it's all about the bay of St Michael and of St Malo.
- Connaissance des Arts: Maurice Denis, P6.

Les Arbres Vert ou La Procession Sous les Arbres

Kerduel Forest is in Brittany, close to Perros-Guirec1 where he and Marthe stayed just after their marriage on 12 June, 1893. This painting, elegant and evocative, could be seen as an allegory of marriage; an expression of his love for Marthe, a love which has just been sanctified through marriage and blessed by God.

The long green trunks of the trees could be the pillars of a cathedral, reaching all the way to heaven. A young girl in white, separated from the rest of her group, moves over to meet an angel with outstretched wings. Denis was particularly attached to this painting. Like Leonardo da Vinci with the Mona Lisa, Denis kept this painting with him until the end of his life.

The Dixiéme Muse

This is a beautifully composed painting of nine women in a golden forest.

Follow the line they form back into the distance, and the eye is guided to a tiny figure in white, sitting underneath a tree. She is too indistinct to be seen clearly, she seems to shimmer almost in the light. If a line is drawn vertically and another one horizontally, this tiny figure in white would be at the very centre of the cross – perhaps she is an angel – all inspiration comes from God.

It could be said that Maurice had three great loves in his life. His own holy trinity consisted of art, love and religion. It is therefore possible to see the three main figures sitting in the foreground of the painting as representing each of these in turn. The lady to the left, holding the pencil and the book, is art. The lady in the middle dressed in black; perhaps it is a Bible which she is holding; if so, she could be seen as religion. The lady to the right with her pale bare shoulders and her hair gently cascading down her back is love.

All the ladies in the painting share the same face, the beautiful and serene countenance of Marthe. This painting could therefore be showing the huge influence Marthe had over all aspects of Denis's life and work.

Les Grands Panneaux Decoratif (Large Ornamental Panels)

Des murs des murs à décorer.
Walls, walls to decorate.
- Connaissance des Arts: Maurice Denis, P32.

This became a mantra for the young Nabis shortly after they formed in 1890. Later on, Denis was to become one of France's most important interior decorators, heavily in demand for work on theatres, churches and civil buildings. He also painted large series of beautiful paintings, two of these are described briefly below:

La Légende de St Hubert: a series of six paintings commissioned in 1895 by Denys Cochin for his Parisian hotel. Cochin was a keen hunter and he suggested the legend of St Hubert as a subject. The paintings show Hubert on a hunt through the forest. Hubert lived a life of mindless pleasure, and the first panels show Hubert out hunting. The middle of the panels depicts Hubert seeing a miraculous vision in the forest, and the final panels show him deciding to dedicate his life to God. La Légende de St Hubert was partly presented in 1908 and 1909 in Paris, but before the Maurice Denis exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay, the complete work had never been seen together in France.

L'Histoire de Psyché was completed in 1908 for the private mansion of one of the greatest art collectors in Moscow, Ivan Morozov, who was a great collector of the works of Matisse and Picasso, had seen La Légende de St Hubert and was highly impressed. He commissioned Denis to paint him a series of six paintings for his private mansion in Moscow. Denis suggested the classical legend of Eros and Psyché  en raison de son caractère idyllique et mystérieux (because of its idyllic and mysterious character.) The god Eros falls in love with Psyché, a beautiful mortal. Venus, the goddess of love, is jealous and tries to kill Psyché, but Eros saves her in the end. Denis depicted the legend in five panels as a celebration of love and sensuality.

In 1909, this beautiful series of paintings went to Moscow where they were to remain for 97 years, until they came back to France for the Maurice Denis Exhibition at the Musée d'Orsay.


Denis was also a keen photographer. In an age before the hobby became truly widespread, it is a rare treat to be able to see real images of an artist and his family. He took many photos of his wife and their children while on holiday in Perros-Guirec; children laughing and playing on the sands, and later on, when Marthe was suffering from the illness which would eventually kill her, Denis took many touching photos of the children gathered around their mother's bed.

Marthe's Death

After many years of illness, Marthe died in 1919, but she continued to inspire him through memory. Her heartbroken husband painted a chapel in her honour – if you visit the Maurice Denis museum you will be able to see the paintings in the Chapelle du Prieuré. Some of the children were married there underneath images of their mother, like on the painting St Marthe in the Chapel, surrounded by angels.


It is possible that seeing the suffering caused by war could have heightened Denis's religious sensitivities. In 1919, Denis attempted to revive the teaching of religious art. He co-founded the Ateliers d'Art Sacré, Studios of Sacred Art, which would paint many murals for churches. He also created stained glass windows for churches including those at the Église Notre-Dame-des-Missions in Paris and the Église Saint-Louis in Vincennes. His writings on religious art include Théories (2 vol; 1920, 1922) and Histoire de l'art religieux (1939). Denis saw art as a means of celebrating the divine. He wrote in his journal:

Je veux surtout n'avoir jamais a regretter dans ma vie d'artiste un manqué a ma dignitie de chrétien.
I want, above all else, to never have to regret in my life as an artist, any lack in my dignity as a Christian.
- Connaissance des Arts: Maurice Denis, P4.

Many of Maurice Denis religious paintings are very different from traditional religious art. Some are ethereal (Noli Me Tangere); some very human (Mother and Child); but all are exquisite and moving. A selection of his religious works in a variety of styles can be seen at the art unframed website.


Denis married again, two years after Marthe's death. Yet there are not many references to his second wife, Elisabeth Graterolle, with whom he had two more children. It is hard enough being the second wife but what must she have thought – seeing St Marthe in the Chapel – what was it like to follow a muse and a 'Saint'?

Untimely Death

Denis continued to paint, including illustrating the apse of the cathedral of Saint-Esprit in Paris in 1934. A car crash in Paris in November, 1943 claimed his life, just before his 73rd birthday.


The Maurice Denis Museum opened in 1980, and is located in the artist's old home in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It has a large collection of paintings by Les Nabis, post-Impressionists and the Pont-Aven group, as well as works from the avant-garde movement from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries.

In October, 2006, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris held a major exhibition of over a hundred of Denis's paintings. The exhibition clearly demonstrated that he was not loyal to one particular method of painting, but rather experimented with a whole range of styles from abstract to classical. A selection of his paintings can be seen by looking at the Art Expert website.

This was the first major exhibition in France since 1970, and as such provided an excellent opportunity for casual visitors to the museum to find out more about this talented and prolific painter.

1Perros-Guirec was a very important place for Denis; he spent many happy summers there on holiday with Marthe and their seven children.

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