Maurice Denis : A Nabi at the Orsay Museum



The Musée d’Orsay in Paris will be celebrating the works of Maurice DENIS from 31 October 2006 to 21 January 2007. This retrospective homage should give the public a clearer understanding of the artistic evolution of a painter who was a contemporary and friend of Paul GAUGUIN, Pierre-Auguste RENOIR, Edgar DEGASand Édouard MANET, among others.

Although the youngest member of the Nabi group, Maurice Denis (1870-1943) was no less a theoretician than the rest and was responsible for the famous definition of neo-traditionalism: « remember that a painting, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order before being a battlefield, a naked woman or any other anecdote ». Denis was inspired by arabesques and the simplified shapes found both in art nouveau and Japanese art. Within the group of Nabis (prophets in Hebrew) his paintings are those of an initiate and the canvases acquire an autonomous identity with their own internal logic. Indeed, Denis’ works are invested with a very personal religious inspiration that opens his canvases to a spiritual dimension.

Maurice Denis’ paintings are focused on three key themes: The family, depicting scenes with his wife Marthe and their children, Brittany, where he replenished his mental, physical and spiritual resources, and religious themes, revisited with modernity.

Maurice Denis painted numerous scenes with members of his family. However, his works rarely come to market because the Nabi Maurice Denis is considered by collectors as a « blue chip » of the art world and is a highly appreciated by international museums. Over the last 5 years not a single high quality work on this theme has appeared on the market. On 9 December 2001 a wood panel oil entitled Maternité, Marthe Denis et sa fille Noëlle sold for FFR 250,000 (EUR 38,113) at Pillon in Calais. A few drawings have recently surfaced at auctions, but amateurs are selective and tend to prefer the works finished in pastel to the plain charcoal or ink drawings. Thus, the last three drawings representing Marthe were bought in after estimates ranging between EUR 2,000 and 5,000, while the last good pastel on the theme, Portrait de Marthe à la tresse, easily doubled its high estimate on 15 June 2000 selling for FFr 50,000 (more than EUR 7,600) at Piasa in Paris. Nevertheless, from the start of 2006 to the end of September, six Maurice Denis pastels were sold: a couple of religious themes, but above all some portraits that normally change hands for between EUR 1,500 and 6,000. Two factors tend to push the prices up: the quality of the work, and the prestige of the model. Hence, on 16 June last, his Portrait de Christine Lerolle, who posed several times for Auguste Renoir, was hotly disputed at Beaussant-Lefèvre Paris and ended up quadrupling its estimate by going under the hammer for EUR 45,000!

In 1908, Maurice Denis bought Villa Silencio in Britany. One of the last Brittany themes to appear at auction was an oil on cardboard entitled Bretonnes au village près de la mare which sold for EUR 42,000 on 28 November 2005 at Mathias-Million-Robert in Paris. His Brittany scenes are less sought-after when they represent tranquil landscapes: on 14 December 2003, the auction house Schmitz-Laurent (Saint-Germain-en-Laye) offered a similarly dimensioned Coucher de soleil sur un village breton that failed to trigger any serious bidding and was bought in after being estimated at EUR 30,000.

As of 1918, Maurice Denis focused more on religious themes. He created numerous stained glass works and in 1919 opened the Ateliers d’Art Sacré in Paris. His later works (after the 1920s) and small formats remain affordable at less than EUR 10,000 such as Personnages près de la croix, an oil on cardboard that sold at Piasa in Paris on 5 April last for EUR 8,500, or L’Assomption sur le tertre de la clarté, a large canvas (92 x 65 cm) from 1922 that sold for EUR 7,000 on 26 March.

One of his best prices was generated by the sale of a magnificent painting that contained all three of his favourite themes. The work, entitled Après-midi dans les bois, from 1900, represents family happiness, the Nativity, and Brittany… all in the same space. Presented on 2 November 2005 at Christie’s New-York, it sold for USD 580,000, (EUR 482,850) inflating the artists price index for that year by 40%! His all-time record is still the FFr 3,450,000 (EUR 525,949) generated by Les Communiantes, la promenade au jardin that shot past its estimate at Thierry-Lannon in Brest on 10 December 2000.