Allégorie de l'Ile-de-France (Sketch 1), c. 1926
b. 1870, Granville Manche, France
d. 1943, Paris, France
One of the founding members of Les Nabis, Maurice Denis is also known for his championing of Symbolism and Neoclassicism. His theories contributed to the foundations of Cubism and Fauvism, and Denis was one of the chief forces of the revival of religious art in France: in 1919, he founded the Atelier d'Art Sacré, and is known for his monumental mural decorations for both churches and government buildings.
Born in a coast town in Normandy, Denis grew up working class in the Paris suburbs. He was an only child, and his passions for art and religion began early; from the age of thirteen, he kept a journal in which he recorded his thoughts and impressions about ceremonies at the local church and his frequent visits to the Louvre. When he was fifteen, he wrote in his journal, “ Yes, I must become a Christian painter; to celebrate all the miracles of Christianity, I feel that is what is needed.”
Denis was accepted at the Lycée Condorcet, one of the most prestigious Paris schools, and studied philosophy. However, he left the school and instead enrolled in Académie Julian in 1888, where he met Paul Sérusier and Pierre Bonnard, with whom he shared ideas about painting. Through Bonnard, Denis met Édouard Vuillard, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and Hermann-Paul. In 1890 they formed a group which they called Les Nabis, taken from the Hebrew word for "prophet". Their philosophy was based upon the philosophy of positivism, and a rejection of naturalism and materialism in favor of an idealistic spiritualism. During these early years, Denis became interested in the Symbolist works of Paul Gauguin, and under this influence his paintings began to take on the mystical quality which carried through to his mature works.
In August 1890, Denis published an essay in the review Art et Critique, the ideas of which would become critical to his contemporaries. The celebrated opening line of the essay was: "Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order." This idea was not original to Denis, but it was Denis’s expression which seized the attention of artists, and became part of the foundation of modernism; Denis was among the first artists to insist on the flatness of the picture plane.
After 1900, Denis became interested in the paintings of the Italian Renaissance. He traveled often to Italy, focusing increasingly on religious subjects an perspectival space. Denis died in Paris in 1942, and today, his works can be found in the collections of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.