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Impressionist & Modern Art

Maurice Denis: The Ultimate Nabi

Maurice Denis was a founding member of one of the most radical and pioneering artistic movements of the nineteenth century: the Nabis. Formed in 1888, the Nabis were an association of artists who sought to break away from traditional subjects in favour of painting dominated by flat planes of colour and simplified forms as a means of attaining a greater level of spirituality within art. Nabi paintings of superlative quality are very rarely seen on the market, which is why Sotheby’s are thrilled to be offering Denis’ exquisite L’Essayage for sale in our Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale on 2 March.

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MAURICE DENIS, L’ESSAYAGE , OIL ON PAPER LAID DOWN ON BOARD. ESTIMATE £200,000–300,000.

L’Essayage is a tender and intimate portrayal of Maurice Denis’ adored wife, Marthe Meurier. The couple married on 12th June 1893, and went on to have seven children together, with Denis frequently employing his family as subjects for his work.

Marthe served effectively as the artist’s muse, acting as his model on a number of occasions. In this work she stands patiently as alterations are made to her dress, whilst another woman – believed to be her sister, Eva – carefully inspects herself in a delicate hand mirror. The overall effect is one of tranquil domesticity, with the harmonious arrangement of the figures mirroring the atmosphere of serenity which pervades the scene.

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MAURICE DENIS WITH MARTHE AND THEIR DAUGHTER BERNADETTE CIRCA 1912

The flat planes of bold colour reflect Denis’ revolutionary creative dictum: ‘Remember that a painting – before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or an anecdote of some sort – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours, put together in a certain order’ (quoted in John Golding, Visions of the Modern, Los Angeles, 1994). Originally formulated as a theory by the artist in 1890, this pioneering concept arguably anticipated the move towards abstraction which was to become such a fundamental aspect of early twentieth century painting, whilst also serving as a source of inspiration for other artists associated with the Nabis group, such as Paul Serusier, Paul Gauguin and Georges Lacombe.

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PAUL GAUGUIN, PETIT BRETON À L’OIE . OIL ON CANVAS. SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK, 6 NOVEMBER 2013. SOLD FOR $9,685,000.

L'Essayage boasts a distinguished and extensive exhibition history, having been included in a number of shows dedicated to the Nabis as well as individual exhibitions devoted solely to the artist between 1945 and 2010. The incredible collection of labels attached to the back of the work acts almost like a journal of the painting’s life, detailing its many travels round exhibition venues. It remained in the collection of the artist’s descendants until 2009.

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