Maurice Denis, Eternal Spring

Giverny, Musée des Impressionismes, from 1st April to 15 July 2012.

Maurice Denis does not in any way correspond to the image of the doomed artist : not only was he Christian but he is also fashionably popular today (not always hand in hand). After the retrospective staged by Orsay in 2007 (see article in French), a series of exhibitions and thematic publications have recently explored the painter’s ties with Brittany [1], Belgium [2], Savoie region [3] and soon Switzerland [4].

1. Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
April, Anemones, 1891
Oil on Canvas - 65 x 78 cm
Private Collection
Photo : All Rights Reserved / Paris, ADAGP, 2012

The Musée des Impressionismes, however, is offering a less geographical and more metaphorical look at the artist’s work, with spring as the guiding theme. Despite the many exhibitions presented in the last few years, the one in Giverny manages to surprise us by offering seldom seen paintings, mostly from private collections, and reminding us of the diversity in his production, ranging from lithographs to grand décors. Alas, the catalogue assembles the works without accompanying entries and the lack of an index makes it difficult to consult. Nevertheless, the essays show that the subject of spring was not chosen just to correspond to the current season and "look nice" but appears in fact at the heart of Nabie painting - Bonnard, Lacombe, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel ; these short studies also examine Denis’ relationship with Monet and, more generally, Impressionism.

Maurice Denis’ art celebrates not only the renewal of nature but also the spring of life and of the soul. These different forms of (re)naissance or (re)birth are closely linked, embodied in the women present in each of his canvases, simultaneously symbolizing the beloved and the madonna. Two worlds, the profane and the sacred, communicate and reflect each other, following a melodious antiphon and a permanent play of mirrors. With each passing room, Denis’ vocabulary becomes more obvious as we progressively familiarize ourselves with his world.

The exhibition begins with Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where the forest serves as a setting for many of his paintings : in April, Anemones, with a striking touch of neo-Impressionism, the winding path of life leads the fiancée, dressed in candid innocence and white linen, towards a new stage : that of the united couple (ill. 1). In the foreground, the thorns evoke suffering and evil, while the anemones represent patience and hope.

2. Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
The Catholic Mystery, 1889
Oil on Canvas - 97 x 143 cm
Saint-Germain-en-Laye, musée départemental
Maurice Denis
Photo : Musée départemental Maurice Denis
Paris, ADAGP, 2012

3. Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
Easter Morning, or Holy Women at the Tomb, 1894
Oil on Canvas - 74 x 100 cm
Saint-Germain-en-Laye, musée départemental
Maurice Denis
Photo : Musée départemental Maurice Denis
Paris, ADAGP, 2012

Still inspired by the forest in Saint-Germain, Denis designed two decorative panels, probably companion pieces, illustrating Nymphs with Hyacinths and Playing Badminton. The first one is known only through a photograph and a study ; the second, residing at the musée d’Orsay, could not unfortunately be lent for the exhibition, but is evoked thanks to a full-size study entitled The Sacred Wood, which of course alludes to Puvis de Chavannes’ work. Here, elegant women are playing badminton, racket in hand, elsewhere nude women are bathing : the painter blends reality and myth, the contemporary to the timeless.

4. Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
Virginal Spring, 1899
Oil on Canvas - 136.5 x 198.5 cm
Wacoal Holdings Corp
Photo : O. Goulet
Paris, ADAGP, 2012

Spring is also synonymous of incarnation and resurrection, Christian themes which the artist treats with originality ; between 1889 and 1891, he painted a series of six Annunciations entitled The Catholic Mystery where there is a palpable influence by Fra Angelico (ill. 2). Although the composition barely changes throughout the different versions, the manner becomes more or less austere, more or less colorful. The Archangel Gabriel has shed his wings for a robe thus imparting a modern value to the mystery. In fact, the deacon, the angel and the painter all share the condition of acting as our intermediary with the divine. Noli me tangere is another canvas where two worlds coexist, separated by a low barrier : the holy women walking to the tomb are close to the viewer, while Christ and Mary Magdalene are set back in a holy space. The ensemble appears in a very real, but transfigured, landscape (ill. 3).

5. Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
First Ceiling for Ernest Chausson, c. 1894
Oil on Canvas - D. 182 cm
Private Collection
Photo : All Rights Reserved
Paris, ADAGP, 2012

Finally, spring is symbolic of love and engagement. Nude with Violets represents the artist’s wife, Marthe, a kind of Diana at her bath surprised by a horseman galloping in the background of the composition, or the newlywed awaiting her spouse. The violets symbolize modesty and secret affection, like Marthe, sensual and pure, incarnating both sacred and profane love. In many ways, she recalls Hope by Puvis de Chavannes which Denis admired.
We find Marthe once again in Virginal Spring, where the composition is split by a tree, and reveals the presence of a young woman dressed in blue on the right, weaving a crown of flowers, while on the left she dons her wedding or baptism gown (ill. 4). The small white shoes, a charming detail, offer a symmetrical counterpart to the two doves. The landscape is both real and imagined ; in the background, we see only the trunks of the trees, often the case in Denis, echoing the human figures. "Nature is a temple where human pillars...".
Marthe appears constantly, here in the collection Love edited by Ambroise Vollard in 1899, made up of twelve lithographs each presenting a Symbolist legend taken from Denis’ diary revealing his poetic talents "Our souls in slow gestures...".

The exhibition in Giverny is also an opportunity to rediscover Maurice Denis’ decorative oeuvre, well known but rarely displayed, with notably the exceptional grouping of three ceilings designed for Hervé Chausson’s private residence which today houses the Lithuanian embassy. This is the first time the three ceilings are shown together since they were taken down in the early 20th century. Denis produced a first composition in 1894 in tondo form, inspired by the Renaissance, April (ill. 5). In 1896, a second one was commissioned (today in damaged condition), Lilac Time, then a third one in 1899 representing the entire Chausson family, meant to welcome visitors to their home. "I think that a painter should first ornate. The choice of subjects and scenes is not important. It is through the colored surface, the value of the shades, the harmony of the lines that I attempt to touch the mind, awaken emotions" [5].

6. Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
The Musicians
Panel of Eternal Spring, 1908
Oil on Canvas - 246 x 150 cm
Saint-Germain-en-Laye, musée départemental Maurice Denis
Photo : Archives départementales des Yvelines
D. Balloud
Paris, ADAGP, 2012

7. Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
Panel of Eternal Spring, 1908
Oil on Canvas - 247 x 161 cm
Saint-Germain-en-Laye, musée départemental Maurice Denis
Photo : Archives départementales des Yvelines
D. Balloud
Paris, ADAGP, 2012

Another décor, commissioned by Gabriel Thomas in 1908, was designed for the dining room of his house in Meudon, made up of ten canvases entitled Eternal Spring (ill. 6 and 7). In an appendix, the catalogue offers the artist’s correspondence with his patron on the project, evoking the destiny of a young woman, first a fiancée, then a mother, in harmony with creation. The exhibition presents the canvases on the same wall but a mock-up shows us their original location in the dining room. Here again, the divine is not far away, the garden becomes paradise and the mother takes on the features of the Madonna. We find the recurring theme of the bath, the white tunic, the bouquet, the crown of flowers... Below these, monochromed panels echo the seasons, excluding winter, as often happens in Denis.

8. Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
Orphée et Eurydice ou
Au printemps, les accents de la lyre sont
vainqueurs de la mort
, vers 1905
Peinture à la colle sur papier - 150 x 358 cm
Collection particulière
Photo : Paris ADAGP 2012

Music is inherent to the artist’s painting, appearing in the titles or as the subject itself, dictating the rhythm of his compositions. This is particularly obvious in an unpublished work, presented here : Orpheus and Eurydice, today held in a private collection (ill. 8). In 1904, Baron Curt Von Mutzenbecher commissioned a décor for the music salon in his private residence designed by Henry Van de Velde. Denis suggested the theme of the seasons but as the architect had rearranged the layout, only The New Song Will Ring in the Eternal Summer was used to decorate the room. However, the full-size studies of the first project still remain : the Musée Maurice Denis holds In Autumn, Music Softens Regret and Sadness and visitors can see Orpheus and Eurydice today at Giverny. Denis undoubtedly found his inspiration in Gluck’s opera which finishes with a ballet where love triumphs over death. In the same way that he omits winter from the cycle of nature’s seasons, the painter does not evoke either Eurydice’s nor Orpheus’ death. The two figures are mirror images : Eurydice is on the left amid a cluster of leaves, Orpheus on the right with his lyre ; their hands meet in the center but he carefully turns his eyes away from her. The other title of this work is In Spring, the Lyre’s Sounds Vanquish Death.

Curators : Fabienne Stahl and Vanessa Lecomte

Under the supervision of Vanessa Lecomte and Fabienne Stahl, Maurice Denis, L’Eternel Printemps, Hazan 2012, 152 p., 29.50€. ISBN : 9782751406382.

Visitor information : Musée des Impressionismes, 99 rue Claude Monet, 27620 Giverny. Tel : +33 (0)2 32 51 94 65. Open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission : 6.50€ (reduced : 3€, 4€, 4.50€).

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mardi 24 avril 2012


[1] This exhibition was held at the Musée départemental Maurice Denis from 18 October 2011 to 22 January 2012.

[2] Catherine Verleysen, Maurice Denis et la Belgique, 1896-1930, Leuven University Press, 2010.

[3] This exhibition is currently taking place at the Musée du Chablais in Thonon-les-Bains until 30 June 2012.

[4] This project will be presented by the Musée des Beaux-Arts in La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.

[5] Maurice Denis in L’Echo de Paris, 1891, quoted in the catalogue, p. 44.

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