Maurice DENIS | The Muses [Les muses]

Maurice DENIS
France 1870 – 1943

The Muses
[Les muses]
1893
oil on canvas
canvas 171.5 (h) x 137.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1932
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

An elegant group of nine women relaxes under a canopy of stately chesnut trees. The strong vertical columns of the tree trunks dominate the composition. The forest floor is carpeted with stylised leaves, which are replicated in the foliage of the trees. The setting is the terrace of St- Germain-en-Laye where Maurice Denis lived all his life.

The women are the nine Muses from classical mythology who preside over the arts and sciences. Denis transforms the theme by dressing the figures in contemporary clothing and stripping them of their traditional attributes, making each muse difficult to identify. An enigmatic tenth muse is visible in the background adding to the mystical atmosphere of the scene.

The artist painted his new wife Marthe as two of the principal figures in the foreground, a device common in Denis’ paintings. Marthe is shown in profile with a text open on her lap and from behind with her bare shoulders exposed.

This large, decorative composition was a remarkable prefiguring of Art Nouveau, which emerged in the mid 1890s. Denis was influenced by the decorative qualities of paintings by Puvis de Chavannes, an example of which can also be viewed in this exhibition.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From audio tour Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay