French painter born in Granville in 1870, died in SaintGermain-en-Lave in 1943. Maurice Denis was the originator of the famous definition used whenever anyone wants to explain contemporary art 'Remember that a picture -- before being a horse, a nude, or some sort of anecdote -- is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order'. That text dates from 1890. Maurice Denis was then not yet twenty, but he showed already an unusual lucidity in such matters. Through Sérusier, who came back from Brittany in 1888, he had just been introduced to the message of Gauguin, whose ideas on Symbolism, and its offshoot Synthesism, were taking shape. In fact, it was the group at the Académie Julian, in which, around Sérusier and Maurice Denis, were to be found Bonnard, Vuillard, K.-X. Roussel, René Piot and Ranson, that began the reaction against Impressionism, which these young artists nevertheless admired. All the philosophical theories, all the ideological formulations, led to a new aesthetic doctrine (vide Nabis) which rejected the technique of the older generation. Denis had a gift for putting into words the theories and aspirations of the new school. In one memorable and often quoted phrase he summed up the guiding principle of all contemporary art. "We must never forget that any painting -- before being a warhorse, a nude woman, an anecdote or whatnot -- is essentially a flat surface to be covered with colours arranged in a certain order." As against the improvisation of Monet and Sisley, and the dispersal of form, Gauguin put forward an art into which went a good deal of thinking, a choice, harmonies in which what the painter wanted counted more than the observation of Nature. Gauguin wanted the reconstruction of form by colour applied over large areas, and also strong, precise drawing, sometimes even going to the extent of a thick outline around the figures or subjects. Before adopting this formula, Maurice Denis had tried to paint the vibration of light by the use of small touches and the division of colour in accordance with the principles of Seurat. But, whatever the importance he attached to technical problems, his keenness for ideas inevitably led him to treat, in his pictures, subjects with a much more complex significance than simple landscapes or still lifes. If, then, Symbolism was an intellectual and poetic concept which demanded that a picture should not be merely the material representation of the external world but should also express and suggest certain thoughts or states of mind, then the birth of Synthesism was inevitable. The desire to spiritualize painting sprang from a need for synthesis, a very controlled art, the opposite of Impressionist spontaneity, which is analytic. The introduction of philosophical and poetic elements into painting was bound to satisfy Maurice Denis, who remains one of the most important theorists of the time, through his two basic works, Theories and New Theories. His work as a painter is an exact reflection of the state of mind which, little by little, led him to devote himself almost exclusively to religious art. Under the influence of a Dominican, Père Janvier, Denis gave his art a religious trend and in 1919 he founded, with Georges Desvallières, the "Studios of Sacred Art," with a view to the revival of religous painting. He is -- with Georges Desvallières -- one of its most able renovators.
Nevertheless, there is a strange contradiction between Maurice Denis's work and his ideas. After having been one of the first to stress the idea that a work of art ought to find its justification in itself, the subject being only of secondary importance, Maurice Denis is also the man who has given the subject back its primary importance; for, in religious art, the representation of the Nativity or of the Crucifixion is the picture's main raison d'être.
Maurice Denis travelled widely in Belgium, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Algeria, the United States and Canada. Greece and Palestine impressed him strongly. But it was Italy that influenced his work most decisively: Rome gave him classicism; Siena his harmony of colours; Florence his simplicity of design; and Assisi the purity of his landscapes. For his art, like his faith, was nourished by his love for the loftiest embodiments of the mind and of beauty. He executed numerous mural decorations, especially for churches, and his predilection for static forms and almost immobile figures is particularly suited to this type of work. Through his calm drawing, his range of light colours, his delicate harmonies of blue and rose, he gives the impression of a serenity which is rather exceptional in the painting of his time. And that might, perhaps, be his main fault. At times one would like to sense more unrest in his work, a humanity less satisfied in its beatitude, a calm less manifest and less complete. In his writings one gets the distinct feeling that this calm is actually tremendous self-control, and that Maurice Denis the man, with his restlessness and his doubts, deliberately imposed on himself the solution of life to which Maurice Denis the artist bowed.