Maurice Denis

Born 1870, France. Died 1943.
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Maurice Denis Biography

“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.” So began Maurice Denis's manifesto for Les Nabis, a group of young French artists who pushed beyond the lyrical evocation of Impressionism and into the more personally expressive and formally daring domains of Expressionism and Abstraction. Denis later returned to a neoclassical style and was vital in reviving religious art in France.

Maurice Denis was born on November 25, 1870 into a family of peasant origins in Granville, Normandy, France, and raised in the Paris suburbs. Evincing an early passion for art and Christian religion, he admired the works of Fra Angelico and Raphael in the Louvre.

He enrolled at the Académie Julian and soon befriended Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and others who in 1890 would adopt the title Les Nabis – from the Hebrew word n'vi'ím (נְבִיאִים), meaning prophets. The group was inspired by Japanese woodblock artists, the English Pre-Raphaelites, and above all their countrymen Paul Gauguin and Georges Seurat, and from these disparate sources developed a wholly novel style. The following year, Denis was affianced to Marthe Meurier, who would become his most important subject, appearing in domestic scenes, landscapes, and in idealized form in his series The Muses which were exhibited at the 1893 Salon des Indépendants. Later in the 1890s, Denis became interested in decorative art, producing woodblock book illustrations, fans, tapestries, stained glass windows, and lithograph posters in the nascent Art Nouveau style.

During a trip to Rome in 1898, Denis rediscovered the work of Fra Angelico, Raphael, and the other old masters who had so captured his spiritual imagination as a youth and began to reintroduce classical aesthetics and themes into his work. Active as a tertiary in the Roman Catholic church, Denis joined the royalist, counter-revolutionary Action Française in 1904, and remained a member until 1927, when the movement was formally condemned by Pope Pius XI. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he received several important ecclesiastical and civic commissions in Paris, including the altarpiece of the Église du Saint-Esprit and a ceiling of the Palais du Luxembourg. Denis died of injuries resulting from a car accident in November 1943.

In 1980, Musée départemental Maurice Denis opened its doors in the Paris suburbs. The artist's work is also represented in the permanent collections of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.

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