Even today Maurice Denis' (1870-1943) place in the history of art remains unspecified. Known as the "Nabi of the beautiful icons", he is celebrated alongside Vuillard and Bonnard as one of the most important Nabi painters, a founder of the movement and its brilliant theoretician.
From the beginning of the 1890s, the Nabis were, according to Verkade, calling for "walls, walls for decoration". Denis painted ceilings and panels, as in April (ceiling for Chausson) or Forest in Spring and Forest in Autumn - in imitation of a tapestry.
Denis frequently used to recount the origins of the Nabi movement, created in the aftermath of the furore provoked by the Talisman (Paris, Musée d'Orsay, former Maurice Denis collection), a small landscape with an emblematic title painted by Sérusier under the guidance of Gauguin. Along with Puvis de Chavanne, Fra Angelico and the Ingrists, Sérusier was a seminal figure for the young Denis. Like his Nabi friends, Denis produced more and more small paintings, each more audacious in its application of the new aesthetic: flat surfaces of bright colour, a radical simplification of shapes, absence of perspective, Japanism and Synthetism. One room brings together about fifteen of these "Nabi icons" painted by Denis in the 1890s. They show a rare freshness and freedom of execution. Some have not been exhibited before.
His symbolist compositions and decorative works benefited from this research, which he used for an art which was becoming increasingly monumental and reasoned. His trip to Rome in 1898 with André Gide confirmed the move towards a classical revival, encouraged by the art of Raphael and Cezanne.
Hommage to Cezanne (Musée d'Orsay), in the large decorative panels, like A Game of Shuttlecock (Ibid.) or Virginal Printemps (private collection), a major painting never exhibited in a French gallery since 1945, but also seen in the family scenes, inspired by the happiness he found with Marthe. By this time Denis was a well-known, revered and highly sought-after artist. His work was sold by Vollard, Druet and Bernheim and was much favoured by Ivan Morosov and his rival Sergei Shchukin, both eminent Russian collectors of Matisse and Picasso.
The turning towards classicism becomes clear in the dazzling paintings of beaches where the atmosphere is close to that in his photographs, taken at the same time. There is an exhibition room dedicated to these. It opens with the first work in the series painted at Perros-Guirec in 1898, Women bathers, Perros currently at the MOMA in New York.
Denis' beaches are also meant as a critical reply to Matisse. Denis tries to define a community art, which maintains balance, sensuality and order, between the constraints of the subject, the feeling for nature and decorative imagination. He strives to achieve this both in his easel paintings and in his murals.
At the end of this chronological sequence, there is a display of landscapes painted between 1898 and 1943. They manage to show how a taste for simplicity and synthesis transform the reproduction of nature. On display for the first time is one of his last paintings, a Vue du Reposoir (private collection) painted in pure Nabi spirit a few weeks before his death.
L'Amour et la vie d'une femme (provincial Maurice Denis gallery and private collection), was part of a decorative frieze for the great Art Nouveau dealer, Siegfried Bing. It was started in 1896 by the artist for his own room and was modified whenever they moved house until 1922.
Denis magnificently lays out the path of the life of a woman, from betrothal to the consecration of motherhood, punctuated by mysterious views of a heavenly garden.
Following this is The legend of Saint Hubert (musée départemental Maurice Denis), created in 1897-1898 for Baron Henry Cochin. This symbolic hunt marks a turning point in the work of the painter, who, for the first time, is confronted by such huge formats. The success of this project won him the admiration of Ivan Morosov, who then commissioned him to do what was to be one of his most spectacular private decorative works: The Story of Psyche.
Presented in part in 1908 and in Paris in 1909, before been installed in Moscow, the complete work has never since been seen in France. For this decorative work, Denis had asked Maillol to whom he was very close at that time, to do four bronzes, similar to the first sculptures, to go with Denis' exceptional panels, now in the National Museum of the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.