The authenticity of this lot has been confirmed by Claire Denis, who has suggested that the frame for this work was painted by the artist, possibly with the help of his wife Marthe.
Painted in 1901, Descente de croix is one of two major works from the early 1900s which were inspired by Raphael's The Deposition in the Galleria Borghese. Denis had conceived the idea for the present work and its pendant, L'ensevelissement of 1903 in 1898, upon his return from a visit to Rome in the company of André Gide, which had awakened his interest in Renaissance painting and classicism. Denis had travelled to Italy a number of times in the 1890s, but it was the journey with Gide that proved decisive for the stylistic evolution of his compositions from flattened forms to a more three-dimensional rendering.
Nicknamed the 'Nabis of beautiful icons' by his friends, Denis was a fervent Catholic and his religious beliefs underpinned his oeuvre. He and his fellow Nabis co-founders Sérusier and Ranson saw an essential connection between their artistic ideas and their religious or theosophical beliefs, and tended to draw their subjects from myth, religion and tradition.
Although more naturalistic and modelled than his earlier religious paintings (figs. 1 & 2), the present work repeats a theme that was obviously important to Denis, and harks back to Paul Gauguin's influential Self Portrait with Yellow Christ of 1889-90 (fig. 3). In Descente de croix, Denis' wife Marthe is depicted holding the shroud, while Denis portays himself taking the nails out of Christ's hands. His friend, the poet Adrien Mithouard holds Christ's body, while his wife can be seen proffering a bouquet of flowers. Denis furthermore placed the scene in his home town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, visible in the background. The frame for Descente de croix was custom made and painted by Denis and prossibly his wife Marthe.
From 1899 onwards the religious dimension of Denis' work became increasingly dominant. He undertook a number of religious and secular decorative projects, including the mural decorations for the Chapelle de la Vièrge in Sainte-Marguerite du Vésinet in 1901-1903. In these, as in the present work, he cultivated the dry, matte surface of fresco painting and generally favoured a muted Symbolist palette of pastel blues, pinks, greys and mauves which recalls the murals of Puvis de Chavannes, and which also drew inspiration from the work of Fra Angelico and the fifteenth-century frescos he had studied in Italy. In 1910 Denis founded the Ateliers d'Art Sacré, dedicated to the revival of Christian art.
Fig. 1: Maurice Denis, Montée au calvaire, 1889
Fig. 2: Maurice Denis, Offrande au calvaire, ca. 1890
Fig. 3: Paul Gauguin, Self Portrait, 1889-90
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