Maurice Denis: Symbolist and Mystic Painter

by Cathy Locke

“Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House,” 1916, oil on canvas
“Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House,” 1916, oil on canvas

November 25, 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of French artist Maurice Denis (1870-1943). Best known as a founding member of Les Nabis, Denis was also an important pioneer of modernism. In 1888, a group of young French artists, most of which were students together at the Académie Julian in Paris, formed a group called Les Nabis (named for the Hebrew word for “prophets” or “seers”). At the age of 18, Denis was credited with writing the Nabi Manifesto when he published The Definition of Neo-traditionalism in the August 1890 journal Art et Critique. The group followed Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and contributed to his efforts in the development of synthetism. Looking to transform and revitalize painting, the Nabi painters were committed to creating work that was more than just a representation of the natural world but synthesized symbolic and spiritual metaphors in its imagery. Stylistically, they strove to achieve a purely decorative quality in their paintings, inspired by the pure colors and flattened forms of Gauguin and the simplified compositions of Japanese prints. Synthetism employed two-dimensional patterns much like puzzle pieces. In Denis’s famous 1914 essay, New Theories of Modern Art and on Sacred Art, he wrote, “Remember that a painting, before it is a horse in battle, a nude woman or a sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” Of course, color wasn’t arranged in just any order, but through a careful study of analogous and complementary colors. Les Nabis, most active in Paris from 1888 until 1900, was Denis’s foundation as an artist on which he built upon.

“Le Mystere Catholique,” 1889, oil on canvas, Maurice Denis Museum, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
“Le Mystere Catholique,” 1889, oil on canvas, Maurice Denis Museum, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

Le Mystere Catholique (1889) is a significant example of Denis’ early work associated with the Nabis and marks a beginning point of what became labeled as Nabi icons. The painting depicts one of the Christian mysteries – the appearance of the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. Denis explored this subject across six different works, this painting being the second and most famous of them. Denis takes a modern approach to this biblical story by using the altar boys and priest to symbolize the angels, while the Virgin Mary is dressed in white with her hand suggestively resting on her stomach. His deep religious belief influenced much of his work throughout his career, as he felt art should “celebrate all the miracles of Christianity.” The figures seem to be isolated and floating within the canvas. All four figures are simplified into almost abstracted shapes; with the window as the unifying element for the male figures, while the chair anchors the female. Denis uses an energetic play of color between the male and female forms. Using contrasting primaries of blue and red, with the majority of the canvas mixing into either red-violet or blue-violet. There is a heavy use of a dark pure blue for the Virgin’s chair contrasted with vibrant red accents for the male figures. The male figures have a vibrating movement while the female form is stationary and firmly grounded. There is a hesitant manner in which the color is used within the painting, you do not see it supporting and building on itself like you typically would. 

“Figures in a Spring Landscape,” 1897, oil on canvas, Sergei Shchukin Collection, Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow
“Figures in a Spring Landscape,” 1897, oil on canvas, Sergei Shchukin Collection, Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow, Russia

During the end of the 1800s many artists were influenced by the art of Japan and Denis was no exception. The trend started with the opening of trade with Japan in 1858, and was in full swing with a major retrospective of Japanese prints at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1890. Even before this Denis had been cutting out and studying the illustrations of the catalog Japan Artistique, published by the German French art dealer Siegfried Bing (1838-1905). In his painting Figures in a Spring Landscape (1897) Denis has created a very stylized composition imitating a Japanese screen. Here we see a much more sophisticated use of complementary colors of green and red then in earlier work. The low contrast approach provides a lovely soft and intimate feeling to this scene. Denis has evolved his work with synthetism, as his interlocking shapes walk the line between flat color and realism. 

“The Legend of Saint Hubert,” 1897, each panel is 88.58” tall x 68.89” wide, oil on canvas, collection of Departmental Museum of Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France  From left to right: 1. Departure, 2. The Release of the Dogs, 3. The Good Go, 4.
“The Legend of Saint Hubert,” 1897, each panel is 88.58” tall x 68.89” wide, oil on canvas, collection of Departmental Museum of Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France 
From left to right: 1. Departure, 2. The Release of the Dogs, 3. The Good Go, 4. The Miracle, 5. The Default, 6. The Hellish Hunt and 7. Arrival at the Hermitage.

The artist’s first major break came in 1895 when the French writer and Catholic right-wing politician, Baron Denys Cochin(1851-1922), commissioned Denis to paint a mural for his office based on the theme of the legend of Saint Hubert. Confronted for the first time with a huge format, Denis began a symbolic hunt for imagery that described the struggle between a good spiritual world of light verses an evil material world of darkness. His final mural consists of seven panels with unique compositions that share imagery, color harmony and decorative motifs. Four themes interweave the panels: the action and intent of the hunt; the evidence of the sacred and conversion of Saint Hubert; the misfortune of hunters driven by their passions; and finally, the human family united in peace and prayer. The artist created the frantic race that leads to the crucial moment when the stag is about to be slaughtered. The light of the fire heightens the cruelty and horror of what is at play, as finally the cross of Christ appears between the antlers of the stag. The last panel ends with a peaceful image of the entire Cochin family in prayer.

From left to right: 1. Departure, 2. The Release of the Dogs, 3. The Good Go, 4. The Miracle, 5. The Default, 6. The Hellish Hunt and 7. Arrival at the Hermitage.“The Legend of Saint Hubert,” 1897, each panel is 88.58” tall x 68.89” wide, oil on canvas, collection of Departmental Museum of Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France 
From left to right: 1. Departure, 2. The Release of the Dogs, 3. The Good Go

“The Legend of Saint Hubert,” 1897, each panel is 88.58” tall x 68.89” wide, oil on canvas, collection of Departmental Museum of Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France  From left to right: 1. Departure, 2. The Release of the Dogs, 3. The Good Go, 4.
“The Legend of Saint Hubert,” 1897, 88.58” tall x 68.89” wide, oil on canvas, collection of Departmental Museum of Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France 
Panel 4: The Miracle

“The Legend of Saint Hubert,” 1897, each panel is 88.58” tall x 68.89” wide, oil on canvas, collection of Departmental Museum of Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France  From left to right: 1. Departure, 2. The Release of the Dogs, 3. The Good Go, 4.“The Legend of Saint Hubert,” 1897, each panel is 88.58” tall x 68.89” wide, oil on canvas, collection of Departmental Museum of Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France 
From left to right: 5. The Default, 6. The Hellish Hunt and 7. Arrival at the Hermitage.​

“Bacchus and Ariadne,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
“Bacchus and Ariadne,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia


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In January 1898, Denis made his first visit to Rome, where the works of Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) at the Vatican made a strong impression upon him. On his return to Paris, Denis re-oriented his art toward neo-classicism by employing more defined figures with the use of chiaroscuro shading. He turned increasingly toward mythology to explore what he termed “Christian humanism.” That same year he bought Villa Silencio, a small villa in a remote unpopulated fishing village in Perros-Guirec, Brittany. It was here that he began a series of beach paintings on mythological themes using bright colors influenced by fauvism. In 1907, he painted Bacchus and Ariadne one of the strongest paintings in this series, it melds neo-classicism with a fauvist use of bright color. It was followed by another series of paintings of nudes at the beach or in bucolic settings, all based on mythological themes. 

The Story of Psyche Series Room at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
"The Story of Psyche,: 1907, oil on canvas, The Maurice Denis Room at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

The success of the Legend of Saint Hubert mural won Denis the admiration of Ivan Morozov (1871-1921), who in 1907 commissioned him to create a spectacular private decorative mural. As one of the most famous art collectors in Russia, Morozov’s sphere of interest encompassed French art, which included works by: Gauguin, Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Securing a major commission from such a collector was an important marker in Denis’s career. He created ten panels entitled The Story of Psyche, for the music room of Morozov’s mansion in the Prechistenka district of Moscow. The monumental canvases depicting episodes in the adventures of Eros, the god of love, and his beloved, the mortal maiden Psyche, a tale from the novel Metamorphoses written in the second century by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis (c.124-170). First presented in Paris in 1909, before being installed in Moscow, the complete work has never since been exhibited outside of Russia, and today is part of the collection at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. This series of canvases show the work of a mature artist in his development of style, imagery and color harmony across all canvases. 

Panel 1: “Eros is Struck by Psyche's Beauty,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg
The Story of Psyche, Panel 1: “Eros is Struck by Psyche's Beauty,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia

In his Story of Psyche Denis moves away from his earlier Nabi icons, instead using Greek mythology to tell his story of Christian humanity. Again, we see the struggle between a good spiritual world of light verses an evil world of darkness. In panel one, Eros is Struck by Psyche's Beauty, we see three princesses in a Grecian kingdom – Psyche and her two sisters. All three sisters are beautiful but Psyche, who stands in the center of the canvas, is the most beautiful and garners the most attention. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, becomes jealous of Psyche and commands her son, Eros, to put a spell on her. In this painting we see Eros flying over the head of Psyche in the top right corner. 

Panel 2: “Zephyr Transporting Psyche to the Island of Delight,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg
The Story of Psyche, Panel 2: “Zephyr Transporting Psyche to the Island of Delight,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia

Eros waits until Psyche is sleeping to sprinkle one of his potions on her to keep men from ever proposing marriage. When she awakens Eros is so startled by her beauty that he accidentally pricks himself with his own arrow of love. Feeling bad about what he has done, Eros then sprinkles Psyche with another potion that will give her joy throughout her life. Over time her parents fear they have offended the gods because Psyche is unable to find a husband. When they ask an oracle to reveal Psyche’s future husband he says, “while no human will have her, there is a creature on the top of a mountain that will marry her.” In Denis’ panel two, Zephyr Transporting Psyche to the Island of Delight, shows Eros employing a Zephyr to gently lift Psyche to her new home, a beautiful palace on an island in the mountains. 

Panel 3: “Psyche Discovers that Her Mysterious Lover is Eros,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg
The Story of Psyche, Panel 3: “Psyche Discovers that Her Mysterious Lover is Eros,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia

Eros, her new husband never permits Psyche to see him. After some time, she grew lonely for her family and asked to have her sisters come visit. When they arrive, the sisters become jealous of Psyche’s beautiful new home and tell her that her husband must be some kind of monster. They suggested that she hide a lantern and a knife near her bed, so that the next time he visited her, she could look to see if he was indeed a monster. In panel three, Psyche Discovers that Her Mysterious Lover is Eros, we see Psyche with the lamp raised to view her husband as not a monster but Eros. Startled Eros awakes and flies out of the window.

Panel 4: “The Vengeance of Venus,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg
The Story of Psyche, Panel 4: “The Vengeance of Venus,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia

Looking for guidance on how to handle her situation Psyche goes to the temple of Venus. In panel four, The Vengeance of Venus, Venus gives Psyche four tasks to accomplish. For the first three tasks Psyche receives the help she needs and is able to overcome the evil vengeance of Venus. Livid, knowing full well that Psyche could never have done this alone, Venus’ next task requires Psyche to go into Hell to ask Persephone, wife of Hades, for a box of magic makeup. Psyche overcomes her fears and retrieves the box. Though she was warned to not look inside the box under any circumstances she was unable to restrain herself from peeking inside. To her surprise, there was nothing inside but darkness, which puts her into a deep sleep. In “The Vengeance of Venus” Denis paints Psyche and Eros in the shadows with Venus standing triumphant in the light. 

Panel 5: “In the Presence of the Gods Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche and Celebrates Her Marriage to Eros,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg
The Story of Psyche, Panel 5: “In the Presence of the Gods Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche and Celebrates Her Marriage to Eros,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia

Having had enough Eros goes to the heavens and asks Jupiter to intervene. He confesses his love for Psyche so eloquently that Jupiter is moved to grant him his wish. Eros brought Psyche to Jupiter who gives her a cup of ambrosia, the drink of immortality. Jupiter then joined Psyche and Eros in eternal marriage. In panel five, In the Presence of the Gods Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche and Celebrates Her Marriage to Eros, Denis shows the happy marriage ceremony with Eros and Psyche on either side of Jupiter. Light has prevailed, evil has been overcome. Panels six and seven show scenes of the now immortal Psyche going to live with the gods. 

The Story of Psyche, Panel 6: “Psyche's Kin Bid Her Farewell on a Mountain Top,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg
The Story of Psyche, Panel 6: “Psyche's Kin Bid Her Farewell on a Mountain Top,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia

Panel 7: “Eros Carrying Psyche Up to Heaven,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg
The Story of Psyche, Panel 7: “Eros Carrying Psyche Up to Heaven,” 1907, oil on canvas, Ivan Morozov Collection, State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg, Russia

In the last period of his life Denis turned his attention to large-scale murals and religious art. In 1914, Denis purchased a former hospital in Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, just west of Paris, and renamed the building “The Priory.” Between 1915 and 1928, with the aid of the architect Auguste Perret (1874- 1954), he decorated the building with frescos, stained glass, statues and furniture of his own designs. He completed twenty murals between 1916 and his death in 1943. On February 5, 1919, shortly after the first World War, Denis and George Desvallières (1861–1950) founded the Ateliers d'Art Sacré, (Studios of Sacred Art). The Ateliers created art for churches, particularly those devastated by the war. From this involvement Denis was able to establish an artistic movement that aimed to create contemporary religious art. In 1976, the Denis family donated The Priory to the French government in order to create a museum dedicated to the symbolist painter, theorist and mystic. Today the museum’s collection has expanded to include works by other painters who have made an impact on modern art.


About the Author
​Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.

Cathy Locke’s artwork – www.cathylocke.com