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Maurice Denis
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Granville, Normandy
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Death Place: 
An influential, prolific and versatile French artist active from the 1880s until the 1940s, Maurice Denis was equally important as an author of works on art theory. He created easel paintings, large murals, brilliant color lithographs, illustrations for some 30 books, designs for about sixty stained-glass installations and designs for wallpaper, tapestries, lampshades, and other objects. A fervent Catholic, he played a major role in the revival of religious art in the 20th century. Born in Granville, Normandy in 1870, his family soon moved to the Parisian suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. While studying at the well-known Lycée Condorcet in Paris, Denis met Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940). Denis began taking drawing lessons in 1884 and also began keeping a life-long diary. He entered the Académie Julian in 1888, where he, Roussel and Vuillard met Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Paul Sérusier (1864-1927). He also studied with academic painters at the École des Beaux-Arts. Inspired by a landscape Sérusier had painted under Paul Gauguin’s (1843-1903) supervision, the young friends formed a group to pursue Gauguin’s Symbolist ideas about painting. They called themselves Les Nabis (after the Hebrew word for “prophet”). The 1889 exhibition by Gauguin and others at the Café Volpini had a strong impression on the Nabis, as did the 1890 exhibition in Paris of Japanese woodcut prints and illustrated books. Denis published his first article in 1890, “Definition of Neo-Traditionism,” in which he articulated the Nabi’s theories. Asserting the primacy of the artist rather than the subject matter, he wrote, “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 colors assembled in a certain order.” Denis began exhibiting his works in 1890 at the Salon of the Société des Artistes Français and then with the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1891. Later that year works by Denis and the Nabis were shown in the exhibition of the “Peintres Impressionnistes et Symbolistes” at the Galerie Le Barc de Boutteville, the first of several exhibitions there continuing until 1896. Marthe Meurier (1871-1919) had become his favorite model. They married in 1893 and had seven children. The wealthy collector Henry Lerolle (1848-1929) purchased one the six nearly-identical Annunciation scenes entitled Catholic Mystery Denis painted from 1889 to 1891; Lerolle and his circle became important patrons. Probably inspired by four decorative panels painted by Bonnard, Denis created four decorative panels depicting the four seasons, which he exhibited in 1892. Denis painted his first decorative ceiling mural, Poetic Arabesques for the Decoration of a Ceiling (Ladder in Foliage) (St.-Germain-en-Laye: Musée Départmental Maurice Denis) on commission from Lerolle in 1892. Denis expanded his repertoire to include lithography and designed theater programs, wallpaper and sheet music covers, and book illustrations. Examples from 1893 include his Madeleine (deux têtes) (Madeleine [two heads], also called Tenderness) (Stein/Karshan 19), published as part of André Marty’s (1857-?) famous series L’Estampe originale (The Original Print), and the lithographs illustrating André Gide’s (1869-1951) book Le Voyage d’Urien. His crowning lithographic achievement is his album Amor (Love), a set of twelve prints published by Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939) in 1899. By 1900 the art Denis and his Nabi friends began evolving in different directions. Denis’s art became more traditional or “classical,” as exemplified by his Homage to Cézanne (1900, Paris: Musée d’Orsay), depicting the Nabis admiring a Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) still-life. He continued to receive numerous private commissions, and was awarded membership in the Legion of Honor in 1910. Denis, Roussel and Vuillard received their first public project commissions in 1912, for the decoration of the new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Denis received the most important task, to paint a 372-meter circular frieze for the theater’s ceiling. He purchased a 17th-century hospital in 1914, which he remodeled into his residence; it now houses a museum of his art. Marthe died in 1919 after a long illness. In 1919 Denis was the co-founder of a school of religious art. Denis remarried in 1922; he and Elisabeth Graterolle (1880-1957) had two children together. He traveled widely during the 20th century, received many awards, was promoted to Commander of the Legion of Honor in 1926, and continued to work until the end of his long life. During his career his art was shown in more than 300 exhibitions. He died in a traffic accident in Paris in 1943. (TNB 8/2013) Selected bibliography: Bouillon, Jean-Paul, ed. Maurice Denis. Exhibition catalogue. Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2006. Cogeval, Guy, et al., Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Beyond: Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay. Exhibition catalog. San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and New York: Prestel Publishing, 2010.