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Maurice Denis


Maurice Denis (1870-1943) is known for his decorative paintings, but was also an artist who influenced contemporary ideas about art through his writings. He was a key figure in the Les Nabis group, which played an important role in promoting the new artistic expression that was to develop out of Symbolist theory.

Maurice Denis was born into a wealthy French family in the town of Granville on the Normandy coast. Many of his fellow students at the Académie Julian in Paris had been known to him as a schoolboy. It was from this youthful circle that the Les Nabis group was formed in the late 1880s. (Nabis means ’prophet’ in Hebrew.)  It became influential in the 1890s, when its also included artists such as Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and Felix Vallotton. Paul Gauguin had enormous influence on the group’s work, and a little landscape by Sérusier following Gauguin’s teaching, using strong clear colours and flat areas of paint, was iconic in its impact. (The group members called it the Talisman.) Denis in turn defined the principles of the Nabis group by underlining in a famous statement that a painting “is essentially a flat surface covered with colours in a certain order”.  

Mythology and religious subjects were central to Maurice Denis’ works. Many feature a coastal view or a stretch of water. Like other members of Les Nabis Denis expanded his range into several techniques. He designed tapestries and ceramics and painted ceilings and walls in various public buildings. The journeys he made to Tuscany and Rome took his work in a more classical direction.