Maurice Denis reengaged with myth, symbol, and the human figure at a time when Impressionists had narrowed their focus to mundane subject matter. He showed that there could be an art that incorporated the best insights of abstraction, and the psychological focus of expressionism, but remained wedded to the canons of beauty, harmony, and order.
“I believe that art should sanctify nature.” —Maurice Denis
Histories of the arts tend to be written from a progressive perspective, where everything proceeds in a straight, narrow course: this innovation led to that, and so on down the line. Such an oversimplified narrative tends to obscure the many bright stars that shine in the nooks and crannies, which often turn out to be the really interesting things. I was reminded of this while attending a winter art exhibit at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC devoted to Les Nabis, a mystically-inclined group of French artists of the turn of the 20th century.
The Nabis got their name from the Hebrew word for prophet, nebiim, because they wanted to revitalize modern art much as the prophets of Israel revived the faith of the Jews. Art histories usually describe them as transitional figures poised between Impressionism and modern art. They were essentially post-Impressionists, painting scenes from everyday life in flat surfaces and expressive, glowing colors. Maurice Denis (1870-1943) was perhaps the outstanding member of the group.
In addition to his association with the Nabis (who went their separate ways after 1900), Denis was also linked with Symbolism and Neoclassicism. More to the point, Denis presented a compelling alternative to the official version of Modernism and played a key role in the revival of religious art. Perhaps uniquely among modern artists, Denis combined a respect for abstraction with an overarching belief in the sacredness of nature. Against the deconstructivism of much modern art, Denis combined “a strong commitment to formal and stylistic innovation with an equally profound sense of the significance of tradition.”
Some conservative thinkers (see G.K. Chesterton’s critique) equate Impressionism with a rejection of the real in nature, the breakdown of form, and hence the source of everything evil in modern art. But in fact, the Impressionists were interested in portraying the true effects of light on the natural world. By contrast, the Nabis focused their attention on the inner life of the soul. Denis was concerned with “capturing the invisible world of moral ideas and spiritual sensations in the outward appearance of his subjects.” Sometimes this led in an abstract direction, but the Nabis never ceased to depict the real, visible world, nor did they break with the canons of clarity and beauty that had always defined Western art.
Although the Phillips show did not include any of Denis’ religious pieces, these were what set his work apart from other Nabis members like Bonnard and Vuillard. At the tender age of eighteen, he produced a semi-abstract Road to Calvary that must have seemed very avant-garde at the time (1888). Denis may have styled himself and his colleagues “Neo-Traditionalists,” but retrogressive he was not. In fact, Denis, as philosophical spokesman for the Nabis, originated one of the most famous quotes in modern art:
Remember that a painting—before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.
That last phrase has often been wrenched out of context and interpreted as a license for pure abstraction. Yet Denis said “before it is a battle horse, a nude model . . .” He was describing what painting is in its raw essence. An artist must not forget that the world has a rational, geometrical order which he must analyze and interpret on canvas as the first step toward creating emotional meaning. The quote does not imply that art should bear no relation to the created world. Indeed, Denis would insist that “art should sanctify nature,” continuing the work of Creation in human terms.
Denis and his Nabis colleagues reengaged with myth, symbol, and the human figure at a time when Impressionists had narrowed their focus to mundane subject matter. They showed that elevated themes need not be equated with the much-despised Academic Style. The choice was not between Impressionism on the one hand and unimaginative photographic realism on the other. There could be an art that incorporated the best insights of abstraction, and the psychological focus of expressionism, but remained wedded to the canons of beauty, harmony, and order.
Denis’ early influences were Gauguin, Cézanne, and traditional Japanese art, with its flattened surfaces and stylized, decorative forms. Later, after visiting Italy, he fell under the thrall of early the fresco painters: Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca. He approached a neoclassic style with rhythmic, simplified, and classically-modeled figures, a hieratic mood, and sweet and luminous colors. The works have a clear connection with the patterned and geometrical Art Nouveau style of décor, so popular at the turn of the century. Decorative art—including book illustrations for Dante and St. Francis’ Little Flowers—form a prominent corner of Denis’ output.
In contrast to the brutalist constructivism ushered in by Picasso and Braque, Denis sought to uncover the expressive potential of simple forms and colors, their capacity to convey spiritual truths of life. As he stated: “Symbolism is the art of translating and inducing states of the soul by means of relations of colors and forms.” His paintings celebrated sacramental themes—springtime rituals suggesting the rites of baptism and communion—and family love, with his wife Marthe figuring prominently in many scenes. Denis described his subject matter as “Christian humanism,” in which both classical myth and Christian sacrament form the core of the imagery.
Throughout his life, Denis fostered initiatives that united his love of beauty and his intense Catholic faith. In 1919 he founded his Ateliers d’Art Sacré (Workshops of Sacred Art) to restore dignity and quality to church décor. His stated mission was to train artists to create works that would “serve God, the teachings of the truth and the decorations of places of worship.” In 1937 Denis wrote a “magisterial” history of religious art and painted Stations of the Cross and other wall murals in French churches—work that brilliantly synthesized the traditional and the modern. He was working on decorating a basilica in the Auvergne region of France in 1943 when he died suddenly in a traffic accident.
One of Denis’ most trenchant quotes concerns the spiritual priorities of the artist—taking a slight dig at the Impressionists and their optical focus:
The common error of all of us was to search above all for the light. It would have been better first to search for the kingdom of God and his justice, that is to say for the expression of our spirit in beauty, and the rest would have arrived naturally.
One can only regret this artist’s present-day obscurity and the eclipse of his unique brand of Modernism. But the Phillips Collection is known for fostering an alternative view of modern art, one that prioritizes continuity with tradition rather than iconoclasm. The exhibit on the Nabis Brotherhood was consistent with this mission, and one left it grateful for the refreshing discovery of Maurice Denis.
 Pich-Chenda Sar, The Art Story, s.v. “Maurice Denis,” New York, NY: The Art Story, 2020.
 Barbara Wells Sarudy, “Women & Children by Maurice Denis 1870-1943,” It’s About Time, December 23, 2013.