Maurice Denis. Part 2 – Religion and his wife, Marthe

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

The year 1890 was the year Maurice Denis began to fall in love.  It was in this year that he met Marthe Meurier, a musician.  He had started to write a journal diary in 1884 and kept adding daily passages throughout his life.  In his diary entry for September 3rd 1891 he declared his happiness at being in love.  He wrote:

“…One feels more beautiful when one is in love.  The attitudes are easy and chaste.  Life becomes precious, discreet…”

And later the diary entry for November 8th 1891 shows his joy with being with Marthe and his love for her:

“…She is more beautiful than any picture, any representation, any subjective effect!  She exists outside of me, I am not the one who creates her…….Faith, love is an act of faith.  I believe in you Marthe…”

Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine's Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano). by Maurice Denis (1891)
Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).
by Maurice Denis (1891)

Denis would complete many portraits of his fiancé.  One of the first, completed in 1891, was entitled Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).  It is an interesting depiction of his fiancé.  She is in three quarter profile with her hands resting on the keys of the piano.  On the piano stand we see the frontispiece of some sheet music, the cover of which was designed by Maurice.  The Princess Maleine mentioned in the title of the painting was a character in a tragic and violent play written by Maurice Maeterlinck that year.  The book had obviously captured the imagination of Maurice’s fiancé as Denis wrote an entry in his diary that October:

“…She is reading again the Princess Maleine until two in the morning. She is pale, nervous, affectionate. Pains for me, and again doubts. Always doubts. Never mind, it’s life…”

The background wall is coloured using the technique known as pointillism, in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image.  This technique was developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in 1886 (see My Daily Art Display Oct 21st 2011).  This painting is housed in the Musée d’Orsay.

Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)
Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)

Another interesting portrait of his fiancé was completed a year later in 1892.  It was entitled Triple Portrait de Marthe, fiancée.  In the painting we see three portraits of Marthe and by depicting Marthe’s images three times in the work Maurice had hoped to symbolise the different aspects of his fiancé’s personality.  He believed that a single portrait would only depict one characteristic whereas a multiple portrait gave him the chance to load the painting with many of her traits and, by doing so, depicting the uniqueness of his fiancé.

Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)
Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)

Maurice Denis used the same technique later in 1897 when he completed Portrait d’Yvonne Lerolle en trois aspects (Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle).  Yvonne was a friend of Denis and the daughter of Henri Lerolle and art patron and music publisher.  The artist recorded in his journal how he structured the painting, writing:

 “…Do the portrait of Y, making the foliage prominent and set the small tree further back so that it becomes more prominent and, at the same time, makes room for the smaller figures. 1. decide on a composition; 2. draw each part or essential element;  3. put the composition on to canvas with the modifications and patches of colour;  4. draw in chalk, charcoal, then in de-oiled paint, and in local colour;  5. rub down and then touch up. Give equal care to each operation. The advantage of this formula is that you only have to paint once and you can do each section individually…”

The description that accompanies the painting which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay states:

 “…Maurice Denis seems particularly fond of using “mise en abyme” as the image reduces: the paving stones in the foreground provide a reference point, as if everything beyond this becomes a variation on the image of the young woman. By portraying several phases in the life of Yvonne, Denis remains faithful to his love of allegorical representations of moments of existence, like those he had already done in the four paintings of his Seasons cycle (1891-1892, various locations). And, by reminding us, along with Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Proust, that the true essence of a human being is the sum of his or her successive appearances, Denis reaches a pinnacle of Symbolist art…”

Mise en abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.

La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)
La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)

My next picture which I am showing you is La Cuisinière (The cook).  This also features Marthe Meurier, now his wife Marthe Denis,.  It was completed in 1893, the year the two were married.  Maurice Denis was brought up as a Catholic and one of the things that he must have found attractive about his future wife was her strong Christian beliefs.  Both were familiar with the Bible and although it may not be apparent at first sight, this picture has religious connotations.  It is typical of Denis’ early works being simply, as the Christie’s New York catalogue described it:

“…a plane surface covered with colors, a compositional tour-de-force in Denis’ oeuvre….. It also possesses a powerful narrative, one that carries several layers of meaning in the symbolist manner, pertaining to the artist, the cook, Brittany, the New Testament and the history of European painting…”

 After Maurice and Marthe married in June 1893 they honeymooned in a small rented house in the small Breton town of Perros-Guirec and the interior of the building features in this painting. Maurice decided to feature his wife working in the kitchen as he looked on her domestic expertise as a wonderful attribute.  He wrote in his journal the following year:

“…she carries out the essential household tasks with total dedication” while displaying her shy love and her taste for what is beautiful among humble domestic tasks…”

It is no coincidence that Maurice’s wife was named Marthe by her very religious parents.  It was the name of the woman in the New Testament who was known for her dedication at home.  We see Denis’ wife Marthe in the foreground working in the kitchen but look carefully at the background of the work and the silhouette against the window.  It is that of Jesus and Mary. Accoring to the bible, Jesus had come to visit the two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany.  In this painiting, Marthe Denis is portraying the character of Martha, who is hard at work in the kitchen.  The story according to the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42) sets the scene:

“… As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her…”

However in this work, Denis has focused on the character of Martha rather than Mary.  The biblical tale focuses on Jesus’ support for Mary who was, rather than helping Martha with her kitchen chores, had chosen to just sit and listen to the words of Jesus.  As in most paintings depicting the threesome, Martha was cast as the bit player and although Jesus did not reproach her for complaining about her sister he said he could see no wrong in Mary’s choice not to help her sister.  Maurice Denis’ painting takes an opposing stand, casting Martha as the tireless worker who was looking after the needs of their respected visitor.  Having said all this, let us remember that this is first and foremost another portrait of Denis’ wife.

The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)
The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)

On 12 June 1893 Denis married his great love, Marthe Meurier. The wedding reception was held on the terrace in front of the Pavilion of Henri IV in the forest of St-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, which had also been the setting for Denis’ major painting The Muses, completed earlier that year. This large decorative composition, measuring 171 x 138 cms, was both a significant representation of the artist’s style at the time, as well as a remarkable prefiguring of Art Nouveau, which emerged in the mid 1890s.  It is very noticeable in this painting that Denis had expanded his palette with much richer colours such as reds, greens and golds.  The Art Nouveau style can be seen in the way the artist has incorporated sinuous lines and decorative patterning of the trees, their trunks, and their leaves, which lie scattered on the ground like a carpet.  Maurice Denis had been commissioned to paint this work by Arthur Fontaine, a French government official.  The title of this painting, The Muses, derives from Greek mythology and refers to the nine goddesses of literature, science and the arts.  Each of the Muses had their own domain, one would be “in charge of” dance, one for comedy, one for literature and so on.  The Muses were considered the fund of knowledge which was embodied in the poetry, song-lyrics, and myths.  Denis used his wife, Marthe as a model for each of his three Muses in the foreground of this painting.  On the left of the trio we see Marthe with a sketchbook on her lap.  She is the Muse who is associated with art.  The depiction of Marthe with her bare back and shoulders on view to us, dressed in what looks like a ball gown, is the Muse of love.  The third Muse which Marthe portrays is dressed in black, her hair is covered with a veil and on her lap is an open religious book, maybe the bible or a book of prayers.  She is the Muse associated with religion.  In the background, amongst the trees, we see many more females walking about dressed in full length gowns and it is this which adds to the “otherworldly” character of the painting.

Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)
Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)

As I mentioned earlier both Maurice and Marthe Denis were devout Roman Catholics and much of his later art focused on religion.  He was determined to renew French church art.  French religious art had lost its popularity and was often cynically termed as the Saint-Sulpice style of art, named after the area in Paris surrounding the famous church which flooded the market with plastic religious relics.   After visiting Italy in 1910, Denis became greatly influenced by the works of the great Italian fresco painters of the 14th and 15th centuries and began to place emphasis on subject matter, traditional perspective, and modelling, which was contrary to the ideas of Les Nabis.  In November 1919 Maurice Denis and a contemporary of his, fellow artist George Desvallières, founded an artistic movement known as the Ateliers d’Art Sacré (Studios of Sacred Art).  The aim of this movement was to create church art once again and teach aspiring young artists to create paintings that would serve God and would decorate places of worship with tasteful religious works.   Maurice himself went on to complete works on canvas as well as murals for more than fifteen churches throughout France.  His artistic work was one of the chief forces in the resurgence of religious art in France.

Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )
Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )

One of his early religious works, which he completed in November 1889, is entitled Le Calvaire, or La Montée au calvaire (Calvary, also called Road to Calvary).  It is a painting of great simplicity.  The structure of the composition is a rising diagonal which runs from the bottom right of the painting with the group of women, black clad nuns, and moves diagonally up to the top left of the work to the top of the upright of the cross.  One is not given any pictorial detail of the women who slowly follow the procession.  They just merge together to form a black mass of people as is the gathering of the lance bearing Roman soldiers we see in the right background.  This anonymity of the women makes for a more haunting image.  In the mid-ground we see Jesus forced to his knees by the weight of the cross.  Mary his mother has moved to him, embraced him and offered her support.

The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées
The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées

In 1911 Maurice Denis was commissioned to carry out paintings and murals for the soon to be built Theatre des Champs-Elysées which opened in 1913.  The theatre is made up of three separate theatres.  The largest theatre was for symphony concerts and operas whilst the two smaller theatres stage repertory theatre.  The Art Deco building was designed by a talented group of artists.  The architect was initially Henry van der Velde but later taken over by August Perret and his brother.  Antoine Bourdelle looked after the bas relief sculpture work on the outside, Maurice Denis designed the massive cupola dome with its immense mural decorations whilst Édouard Vuillard was tasked with the paintings.

Maurice Denis' murals in L'Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.
Maurice Denis’ murals in L’Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.

One of the churches which Maurice Denis and some of the artists from the Ateliers d’Art Sacré, decorated, was the Église du Saint-Espirit which can be found in the 12th arrondissement of Paris.  The building was designed by Paul Tournon.  The construction began in 1928 and was completed seven years later.

The chapel at Le Prieuré
The chapel at Le Prieuré

In 1918 Maurice Denis purchased the old General Hospital of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which had been built by Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.  Denis named it the Le Prieure (the Priory). Maurice’s wife Marthe died on August 22nd 1919 after being ill for several years.  Maurice Denis later painted murals on the walls of the chapel, which was part of the Le Prieuré, which he dedicated to her memory.

On February 2nd 1922, Denis married again.  His second wife was Elisabeth Graterolle, and she gave her husband two more children.   Maurice Denis died in L’hôpital Cochin in Paris after being taken there with injuries he sustained resulting from being hit by a truck on the Boulevard St Michel on November 13th 1943, just twelve days before what would have been his seventy third birthday.

There was so much more to write about this great French artists and so many more paintings I could have added but time and space dictate that I leave it there.  If you like what you have seen in my last two blogs, I hope you will take the opportunity to research further into the life and works of Maurice Denis.

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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.

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