While frequenting the circle of the painter, patron and music publisher Henry Lerolle in the early 1890s, Maurice Denis became friendly with one of his daughters, Yvonne. In 1893 he produced an ex-libris for her, and, more importantly, this triple portrait in 1897, a magnificent reminder of their relationship.
Behind the main, central portrait, two other images of Yvonne appear in the verdant landscape, with the upper part framed by the dark foliage of two trees. One can see from his Journal that Denis planned his painting in minute detail: "Do the portrait of Y, making the foliage prominent, and set the small tree further back so that it becomes more prominent and, at the same time, makes room for the smaller figures. 1. decide on a composition; 2. draw each part or essential element; 3. put the composition on to canvas with the modifications and patches of colour; 4. draw in chalk, charcoal, then in de-oiled paint, and in local colour; 5. rub down and then touch up. Give equal care to each operation. The advantage of this formula is that you only have to paint once, and you can do each section individually".
In its iconographic layout, this triple portrait refers back to Denis' Triple Portrait of Marthe (1892, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Musée départemental Maurice Denis). But whereas this latter portrait echoes the classical style of composition favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites (Astarté Siriaca, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1877, Manchester Art Gallery), the Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle on the other hand certainly alludes to the Young Girls by the Sea (1879, Musée d'Orsay) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a painting about which Gustave Kahn wrote: "cannot one see, in these three women who are all similar but nonetheless have different attitudes, the same woman under three physical aspects…the same one at three moments, three acts of her life?" (La Revue indépendante, January 1888).
Maurice Denis seems particularly fond of using mise en abyme as the image reduces: the paving stones in the foreground provide a reference point, as if everything beyond this becomes a variation on the image of the young woman. By portraying several phases in the life of Yvonne, Denis remains faithful to his love of allegorical representations of moments of existence, like those he had already done in the four paintings of his Seasons cycle (1891-1892, various locations). And, by reminding us, along with Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Proust, that the true essence of a human being is the sum of his or her successive appearances, Denis reaches a pinnacle of Symbolist art."