Maurice Denis. Part 1 – Les Nabis

Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House by Maurice Denis (1916)
Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House by Maurice Denis (1916)

Remember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.

Maurice Denis

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Today I am looking at the life and some works by the great French painter, designer, printmaker and writer, Maurice Denis whose Christian upbringing had an influence on many of his works.  His writings on art theory and his paintings were to influence future painters and in some ways heralded the arrival of cubism, fauvism and abstract art.

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis
Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

Maurice Denis was born in November 1870 in the fishing port of Granville in the Manche department of north-west France.  This Normandy coastal town with its scenic coastline and its countryside hinterland were very picturesque and would feature in many of Denis works.  He was the only son of Constant Eugène Denis and Hortense Denis (née Hadde).  Maurice was born into a wealthy family and benefited from this by attending the best school and academies.

The Denis family, who had been living in Paris, had moved out of the French capital to avoid the Franco-Prussian war which culminated in the capital being besieged by the Prussian army in September 1870.  After the war the family returned to Paris and went to live in the western suburb of Saint Germain-en-Laye which was to be Maurice’s home town for the rest of his life.  In 1882, aged eleven, Maurice enrolled at the Lycée Condorcet, which was founded in 1803 and  was one of the four oldest and most esteemed high schools in Paris   Fellow students at the school were his future contemporary artists, Édouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel and the future theatre director and set designer, Aurélien Lugné-Poe.  Maurice completed his secondary schooling in 1888 and due to his family’s financial status was able to enrol simultaneously in the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian where one of his tutors was Jules Lefebvre.

Pluie en Bretagne by Maurice Denis (1889)
Pluie en Bretagne by Maurice Denis (1889)

Also studying at the Académie Julian at that time was another aspiring artist, Paul Sérusier.  Sérusier, who was six years older than Denis, had also studied at the Lycée Condorcet high school.  During the summer of 1888 Sérusier had spent his time at Pont-Aven in Brittany, which was a popular meeting place for artists. It was during that summer stay that Sérusier met the French painters, Émile Bernard and Paul Gaugin.  Sérusier sat in on many conversations between Paul Gaugin, Louis Anquetin and Émile Bernard, the latter postulating many artistic theories which intrigued his listeners.  For Bernard, simplicity should be the key to paintings and both he and Gaugin would talk about what art genre should follow and differ from Impressionism which had been so popular during the late nineteenth century but it was around the late 1880’s that the Impressionist artists were starting to look at other styles of painting. Sérusier learnt about painting techniques whilst he was at Pont-Aven and one of the last paintings he did that summer was a small landscape work which he called The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour.  When he returned to Paris he explained to Maurice Denis and some of the other students that Gaugin had coached him during this painting and Sérusier quoted Gaugin’s words:

“…How do you see these trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermilion…”

The Talisman, The Aven River at the Bois d'Amour by Paul Sérusier (1888)
The Talisman, The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour by Paul Sérusier (1888)

Gaugin’s advice to Sérusier was to strengthen the colour but at the same time make the form simpler.  Whereas Impressionists would want to paint what they saw and how natural light affected the scene, this was replaced by the artist searching for coloured equivalents.  Maurice Denis and some of his fellow students, Vuillard, Bonnard and Paul Ranson were fascinated by the work and the change of emphasis in the painting technique.  This to them was a new beginning.  They nicknamed Sérusier’s work “The Talisman”, as for them it was looked upon as a secret and magical object that would change their ideas on artistic technique.  This was an early example of Synthetism in art, a term used by Gaugin, often termed Cloisonnism , a term given to it by Édouard Dujardin, a writer and art critic, of the style developed by Bernard and Anquetin, inspired by both stained glass  and Japanese ukiyo-e prints.  It emphasized two-dimensional flat patterns which was totally different to the techniques used by the Impressionists.

Beauty in the Autumn Wood by Maurice Denis (1892)
Beauty in the Autumn Wood by Maurice Denis (1892)

Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Ranson, the four students who had been amazed by the painting which Sérusier had brought back from Pont-Aven soon after formed themselves into art group and called themselves Les Nabis, which is a Hebrew word for “prophets”.  It was a kind of secret brotherhood committed to a type of pictorial Symbolism.  The term Les Nabis was thought up by the poet and physician, Henri Cazalis, who drew a parallel between the ways of the group of painters, as prophets of modern art, aspired to invigorate painting in the same way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel. Other artists studying with Denis at Académie Julian, such as Odilon Redon, Félix Vallotton and Ker-Xavier Roussel also became part of Les Nabis.  This group of young artists were fundamentally opposed to the naturalism technique, the true-to-life style which involved the representation or depiction of nature and people with the least possible distortion or interpretation, which was taught by their Academy teachers.

Maurice Denis was a lover of art theory and at the time published an article, Définition du néo-tranditionnisme in August 1890 in the periodical, Art et Critique, in which he defended their new ideas on art and this became Les Nabi’s manifesto.  It was a definitive declaration which signified the founding philosophies of cubism and fauvism and set up the foundation for the theories of abstraction that would carry on expanding throughout the 20th century.  The article opened with the famous lines:

“…It is well to remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order…”

Nouvelles théories sur l'art moderne [et] sur l'art sacré, 1914-1921 by Maurice Denis
Nouvelles théories sur l’art moderne [et] sur l’art sacré, 1914-1921 by Maurice Denis

Denis would later, in 1922, publish a collection of  his historical and theoretical work in one book entitled Nouvelles théories sur l’art moderne, sur l’art sacré (New Theories of Modern and Sacred Art), often simply referred to as “Theories by Maurice Denis.”

Sunlight on the Terrace by Maurice Denis (1890)
Sunlight on the Terrace by Maurice Denis (1890)

Maurice Denis produced a small painting in 1889 entitled Sunlight on the Terrace which illustrated the style used by the Sérusier/Gaugin Talisman painting and the works on show at the 1889 Volpini Exhibition.    The story behind this exhibition and how it came into being is, to say the least, unusual.  The Académie des Beaux Arts was holding an official art exhibition as part of the Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair designed to flaunt French cultural and industrial might, and its signature attraction was the 300-meter tower of Gustave Eiffel.  Artists were invited to submit paintings for this exhibition which then had to be sanctioned by the selection jurists.  Gaugin and Les Nabis painters realised they would not be invited to submit their works for public viewing and decided to hold a “counter exhibition”.

Volpini Exhibition poster
Volpini Exhibition poster

This was made possible when the painter, Emile Schuffenecker, a friend of Gaugin, discovered that across from the main exhibition on the Champ de Mars was the Grand Café des Arts.  The owner of the café was Monsieur Volpini who was, at the time, arranging the inside furnishings for the café but was distraught to be informed that the large decorative mirrors he had ordered for the walls, and which were coming from Italy, had been delayed and so was delighted to be approached by Schuffenecker who offered to decorate the walls of the café with their paintings.  The exhibition was the initial showing of paintings which reflected the progressive ideas of Gauguin and other artists of the Pont-Aven School. The exhibition became known as the Volpini Exhibition.

A Studio at Les Batignolles, Un atelier aux Batignolles by Henri Fantin-Letour (1870)
A Studio at Les Batignolles, Un atelier aux Batignolles by Henri Fantin-Letour (1870)

In My Daily Art Display (February 3rd 2012) I looked at a painting completed in 1870 by Henri Fantin-Letour entitled A Studio at Les Batignolles.  It was a depiction of a group of artists at the atelier of Édouard Manet whom we see surrounded by his artist friends.  It was a painting which pictorially documented the group of popular artists of the time.

The next painting I am showing you was one done in a similar vein by Denis.  Although Les Nabis as a group had started to go their own ways around 1899 this painting by Maurice Denis entitled Homage to Cézanne was not completed until 1901.  It is a large work of art measuring 180 x 240cms which makes the figures almost life-sized. The setting for the work is the shop belonging to the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, which was in the Rue Laffitte, a street in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.  Les Nabis artists used to meet regularly at the home of one of their group, Paul Ranson and talk about their art and this painting was a reminder of those get-togethers.  In the background, hanging on the rear wall we can just make out works by Renoir and Gaugin.  This pictorial recorded meeting was to celebrate Paul Cézanne and on the easel in the centre of the painting is his 1880 still-life work Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples.  The presence of this painting was another reminder of Paul Gaugin who owned the work but was not present as he had six years earlier set off for a new life in Martinique and Tahiti.  Gaugin had been a great fan of Cézanne describing him as:

“… an exceptional pearl, the apple of my eye…”

Homage to Cézanne by Maurice Denis (1900)
Homage to Cézanne by Maurice Denis (1900)

The gathered artists along with some art critics and art dealers are all dressed in black suits, which is strange attire for such a gathering of the avant-garde Nabis.  On the far left is Paul Sérusier, the leader of Les Nabis who is in conversation with the bearded painter Odilon Redon.  At the back on the left we have the painter Jean-Édouard Vuillard.  Behind him wearing a top hat is André Mellerio, a French art critic who endorsed the cause of Symbolism and was the biographer, and great friend of Odilon Redon.    Behind the easel to the right of Mellerio, and seen holding the easel’s upright, is the art dealer and host, Ambroise Vollard.  Further to the right is Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and on the far right with pipe in hand, Pierre Bonnard.  It is also interesting to note that Maurice Denis included his wife, Marthe in the painting, whom we see in the right background.

In my final look at the life and works of Maurice Denis I will be looking at his later works which would centre around his devout religious beliefs.

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Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

3 thoughts on “Maurice Denis. Part 1 – Les Nabis”

  1. I have been lecturing on the early modern art movement that followed Impressionism but did not include Nabism. Now I wonder why not. Iwritings on art theory and his paintings were to influence future painters and in some ways heralded the arrival of cubism, fauvism and abstract art.

  2. I have been lecturing on the early modern art movement that followed Impressionism but did not include Nabism. Now I wonder why not. If Maurice Denis’ writings on art theory and his paintings were to influence future painters and in some ways heralded the arrival of cubism, fauvism and abstract art, we need to think about the timing of his works and the people he influenced.

    You note that Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Ranson were the artists who formed themselves into art group and called themselves Les Nabis, I know Vuillard, Bonnard and Redon well, but not the other two. Perhaps Nabism didn’t last long enough to have the impact that, say, Cezanne had.

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