Best known as the theorist and man behind the Nabis movement, Maurice Denis is above all one of the most sought-after painters and decorators of his generation. Catholic and spiritual painter, Maurice Denis creates works with strong symbolism, decorative lines and bewitching colors! KAZoART invites you to discover the career of this prolific artist, as well as his religious, fictitious and allegorical paintings!

His Background

Born in 1870 in Normandy, French painter Maurice Denis moved to the capital at a young age to train in the arts. After studying at the Lycée Condorcet, he trained, like many artists before him, by copying the works of the great masters at the Louvre.

Maurice Denis, Autoportrait devant le Prieuré, 1921
Maurice Denis, Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House, 1921 

It was in the large open halls of the Louvre that he discovered the works of Fra Angelico. He developed a deep fascination with Italian Renaissance painting, especially the ones relating to religion

At the end of the 1880s, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris as well as the Académie Julian. Judging the École des Beaux-Arts too institutional and academic for his liking, Denis eventually decided to devote himself entirely to the Académie Julian.

Paul Sérusier, Le Talisman, l'Aven au Bois d'Amour, 1888
Paul Sérusier, The Talisman: The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour, 1888

It’s at this point that he befriends several talented painters, including Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard. Paul Sérusier gifted him his famous work The Talisman, which he kept for the rest of his life as a relic. It was from this painting that he learned the importance of colors and the intricacies that come with using them!

Maurice Denis, Mystère catholique, 1889
Maurice Denis, Catholic Mystery, 1889 

At only 21 years old, Maurice Denis exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants in 1891. He presented his painting entitled Mystère Catholique (Catholic Mystery), a particularly enigmatic work that allowed him to be noticed by his contemporaries!

3 Things to Know about Maurice Denis

1. Religion and Symbolism at the Heart of his Work  

A Catholic painter, Maurice Denis sought to modernize religious painting. His works are imbued with great symbolism and an undeniable spirituality.

Maurice Denis was greatly influenced by Italian art of the Renaissance. From his first encounters with the works of the Italian masters at the Louvre, to his numerous trips to Italy, the artist was quickly seduced by the iconology and symbolism of the Christian works of the Renaissance.

Maurice Denis, Bethsabée devant le bassin du Prieuré, 1918
Maurice Denis, Bethsabée devant le bassin du Prieuré, 1918

Throughout his career, the artist from Normandy produced various religious, allegorical and mythological scenes. Moreover, many of his paintings bring out the influence of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, considered by many to be the true initiator of the Symbolism movement. 

Maurice Denis was above all one of the most sought-after decorative artists of his generation. In 1907, the artist responded to a commission from Ivan Morozov, a Russian art collector, known for having been the patron of renowned artists such as Claude Monet, Henri Matisse and Auguste Renoir.

Maurice Denis, L'Histoire de Psyché, panneau 5, Jupiter en Présence des Dieux, 1908
The Story of Psyche: panel 5. In the Presence of the Gods Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche and Celebrates Her Marriage to Eros, 1908
Maurice Denis, L'Histoire de Psyché, panneau 2, Zéphyr transporte Psyché dans une île de désir, 1908
The Story of Psyche: panel 2. Zephyr Transporting Psyche to the Island of Delight, 1908

Denis created a series of thirteen mythological decorative panels on the Greek myth of Psyche for the music room of the Morozov Palace in Moscow

This series of The Story of Psyche instantly makes us think Art Nouveau. We are also able to appreciate the influence of symbolist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, especially when it comes to the figures and the precise drawing that surrounds the flat splashes of color created by the pastels. 

2. Spearhead of the Nabis Movement

If you have any previous knowledge of Maurice Denis, you must surely associate him with the Nabis movement! Indeed, this multi-faceted artist is also the initiator and mastermind behind the movement

When he first met Édouard Vuillard and Paul Sérusier at the Académie Julian in 1888, the three artists realized that they all shared the same desire: to break away from academic and institutional art

Maurice Denis, Portrait de Sérusier, 1918
Maurice Denis, Sérusier Portrait, 1918
Édouard Vuillard, Autoportrait octogonal, 1980
Édouard Vuillard, Octogonal Self-Portrait, 1980

This group of young French artists gave themselves the name “Nabis”, which translates to “prophets” in Hebrew. This movement, which lasted a little over a decade, sought to abolish the boundaries between decorative arts and traditional painting. These artists also wanted to return to a purer style of painting, after the Impressionism movement they considered a little too superficial.

In their works, these artists also approach a form of semantic mysticism which brings them closer to symbolism. They wished to evoke in their works an essential spirituality, a form of universal and primitive intimacy.

Maurice Denis, L'échelle dans le feuillage, 1892
Maurice Denis, The Ladder in the Foliage, 1892

A vital member of the group, nicknamed the “Nabi of Beautiful Icons” by his peers, Maurice Denis was very involved in the artistic debates of the time. He had a huge impact on the Nabis movement for being the mind behind its unique look and feel!

He wrote an emblematic text that would become the manifesto of the Nabis

“Remember that a painting, before being a warhorse, a naked woman or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain way.”

Maurice Denis, in Art et Critique magazine, 1890

3. Founder of Academies and Workshops

Maurice Denis was also the founder of the Ranson Academy in Paris. Founded in 1908 by the Nabis painter Paul-Élie Ranson, this Academy brought together several Nabis artists who regularly taught art there.

Very quickly, Paul-Elie Ranson found himself in a delicate financial situation, and his health became increasingly more fragile. Maurice Denis came to his aid to found the Academy, and voluntarily gave classes at the establishment. He ended up teaching there from 1908 to 1921! 

Tamara De Lempicka, Portrait de Marjorie Ferry, 1932
Tamara De Lempicka, Portrait de Marjorie Ferry, 1932

Its also important to mention that the “nabi of the beautiful icons” was also the teacher of the equally famous Tamara de Lempicka, an iconic painter of the Art Deco movement!

“It is a very lively place of artistic expansion, where our theories are popularized and broken down in order to become more accessible“. 

Maurice Denis

In 1919, Maurice Denis founded the Ateliers d’Art Sacré (Studios of Sacred Art). He trained a whole new generation of painters around the desire to promote the production of contemporary sacred art. The artists in his workshops shared the desire to separate themselves from any form of academic reasoning, and promote a complete renewal of Christian art!

Maurice Denis, Saintes Femmes au Tombeau (matin de Pâques), 1894
Maurice Denis, Holy Women Near the Tomb (Morning of Easter), 1894

“I proscribe Academic art because it sacrifices emotion to convention and artifice, due to the fact that it is theatrical or bland. [I proscribe realism because it is prose and I want “music first and foremost”, along with poetry. Finally, I will preach Beauty. Beauty is a truly Divine attribute.“

Maurice Denis

KAZoART artists recreate sacred icons