Symbolism Art Movement, Les Nabis, Religious Art Revival & Maurice Denis

Maurice Denis belonged to many interconnecting art movements of the late-nineteenth century. These included Post-Impressionism, Japonism, Neo-Traditionalism, Neo-Classicism, Synthetism, Les Nabis and the Symbolism Art Movement.  

He is considered a significant painter during the period between Impressionism and twentieth-century modern abstract art. Denis is regarded as one of the last ‘Great French Painters’.

Color lithograph by Maurice Denis
Color lithograph by Maurice Denis with Japonism elements [Public Domain]

Maurice Denis – Early Years

Maurice Denis was born on November 25, 1870 in the Normandy coastal town of Granville. However, he and his family returned to Paris after the Franco-Prussian war ended. They returned to their lovely Parisian home in the wealthy suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

At the age of thirteen, Denis began drawing classes. He also sketched from the Old Masters in the Louvre.  His family were financially comfortable & Maurice Denis studied in one of the most prestigious high schools in Paris, Lycee Condorcet. It was here in high school where he met other art students & future Nabis  Édouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel.

Maurice Denis was a scholastic student but left Condorcet to study at the private art school called Académie Julian. The following year, the highly regarded École des Beaux-Arts in Paris accepted him.

Maurice Denis Self Portrait
Maurice Denis Self Portrait [Public Domain]

The influence of the Symbolism Art Movement 

During his art studies at the Académie Julian, Maurice Denis befriended two other art students Pierre Bonnard and Paul Sérusier. He also sees exhibitions Perre Puvis de Chavannes and Paul Gauguin & their symbolism paintings.

The symbolism concept of painting emotions, ideas, dreams or visions rather than realism is a huge revelation to Denis and his friends.

Maurice Denis Painting
Maurice Denis – The Crown of Daisies [Public Domain]

Maurice Denis & The Nabis Art Movement

Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis decide to create a new artistic movement that will captures the spiritual and emotional world in their paintings.

They reject the obsession of Impressionism of painting what you see and defend the concept of the spiritual and emotional elements of art. They draw inspiration from Japonism and the Art Nouveau decorative arts, both of which were popular at the time.

Their new art movement was called Les Nabis ( a Hebrew word meaning “prophets” indicating their symbolism & mysticism). The Nabis artists paint using a light palette of colors and a broad decorative approach.

Maurice Denis becomes the academic scholar of the Nabis art movement. He writes an article describing their new approah to art which is published in Art et Critique in 1890. This contents of this article becomes the Les Nabis group’s manifesto.

Nabis Philosophy of Art Integrated into Commercial Design

Maurice Denis and the Nabis painters believed in the connection of art, architecture, and design. As such Denis undertook quite a few commissions for decorating private homes. He also experimented with many forms of commercial design. Denis designed patterns and models for carpets, ceramics, stained-glass windows, screens and fans. He was also a prolific illustrator of some 50 books. 

Maurice Denis Stained Glass Windows
Maurice Denis Stained Glass Windows

Ateliers d’Art Sacré – Revival of Modern Religious Art

In 1919 and after 26 years of marriage, Denis’s wife, Marthe Meurier dies. Denis is heart-broken and paints the inside of a chapel in her memory.  This cathartic act starts the beginning of a new project called the Ateliers d’Art Sacré (“Workshops of Sacred Art”).

The project’s goal was to revive and modernize religious art for religious institutions such as churches, chapels & cathedrals. Another aim was to train a new generation of religious artists and craftsmen. The group involved in this project renovated several churches between 1919 and the mid-1930s. Lack of commissions forced this project to disband.

One of the most notable commissions was a set of paintings for the Église du Saint-Esprit in Paris, completed in 1934.  Maurice Denis, himself painted wall murals and canvas paintings for more than 15 churches throughout France.

Mosaic by Maurice Denis in Quimper Cathedral.
Religious Art – Mosaic by Maurice Denis in the Quimper Cathedral

Notable Maurice Denis Commissions:

  • 1894 – Denis painted the ceiling in the house of the French composer Chausson
  • 1897 – he painted a series of panels called The Legend of St. Hubert in the house of the art collector Cochin.
  • From 1899 to 1903 he decorated the Church of Sainte-Croix at Vésinet;
  • 1908 – Denis painted the mural series Eternal Spring for Thomas;
  • 1908-9 – he received a commission to paint a series of decorative panels for the wealthy Russian art collector & industrialist, Ivan Morozov. When he completed the panels called The Story of Psyche, he sent them over to Moscow for installation in Morozov’s house.
One of the Panels from the Series The Story of Psyche - Symbolism Art Movement
One of the Panels from the Series The Story of Psyche [Public Domain]
  • 1913 – Denis painted murals on the ceiling of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées
  • 1917 – The artist painted murals in the Church of St. Paul at Geneva;
  • 1924 – Denis decorated the dome of the Petit Palais in Paris;
The Dome in the Petit Palais in Paris painted by Maurice Denis
The Dome in the Petit Palais in Paris painted by Maurice Denis
  • 1928 – He painted ceiling murals above the staircase in the Senate building.
  • Between the years 1936 and 1939, Denis painted a number of decorative panels for the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Personal life of Maurice Denis

In June 1893, Denis married a musician called Marthe Meurier who he loved dearly. He painted many portraits of her. The subject matter that he returns to again and again throughout his artistic life are: love, spirituality, religion & Marthe.

Maurice Denis Portrait of his wife Marthe Denis
Portrait of his wife Marthe Denis {Public Domain}
Triple Portrait of Marthe - Maurice Denis painting
Triple Portrait of Marthe [Public Domain]

In 1914 Maurice Denis buys a run-down building that was once the former hospital of Saint-Germaine-en-Laye. He renamed it The Priory and renovated it entirely, painting frescos and designing stained-glass windows. This project took him 14 years to complete.

A few year after his first wife died, Maurice Denis remarries at 51 years of age. He has two children with his second wife. He continues to paint prolifically throughout his entire life.  In 1943,  Maurice Denis runs over by a car, and diesd on the way to the hospital. He is buried in the old cemetery of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

Museums with an Impressive Collection of Maurice Denis Paintings:

In Paris 

In Brest, France

In Russia:

The Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia

In the Netherlands