France 1870 – 1943
[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
On 12 June 1893 Denis married his great love, Marthe Meurier. The reception was held on the terrace in front of the Pavilion of Henri IV in the forest of St-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, which had been the setting for Denis’ major painting The Muses, completed earlier that year. This large decorative composition was both a significant representation of the artist’s style at the time, as well as a remarkable prefiguring of Art Nouveau, which emerged in the mid 1890s.
For Denis—like one of his heroes, Cézanne—it was not enough to just copy nature.1 For this canvas, he has taken the subject of the Muses of Greek literature, in which nine goddesses were associated with nine arts and identified by nine symbols. Denis has chosen to paint his new wife as the three principal figures in the foreground. She is shown as the representation of ‘Art’ (with a sketch book on her lap), as ‘Love’ (seen from behind, dressed in a ball-gown with the luminous skin of her shoulders and back revealed), and as ‘Religion’ (with her hair veiled and her religious text open).2 Further female figures pose quietly among the trees, adding to the ethereal nature of the composition.3
Another great influence on Denis’ work was Puvis. Denis had become particularly enamoured with Puvis’ art when he’d visited an exhibition in 1887, noting in his journal: ‘I found the decorative, calm and simple appearance of his paintings very beautiful.’4 By 1893 Denis had matured as an artist and was confident enough to have adopted a far richer palette of reds, golds and greens for his composition. The sinuous lines and decorative patterning of the trees—their trunks, their leaves, and the leaf-strewn ground which appears like a Persian carpet—creates a sense of other-worldliness, mystery and stillness.
This painting was commissioned by Arthur Fontaine, a senior bureaucrat in the French government and one of the wealthy patrons for whom the Nabis provided their painting and applied arts. An interior view of Fontaine’s house at 6 Rue Greffuhle in Paris, dated 1904, was painted by Vuillard. That painting includes a depiction of Denis’ The Muses hanging on the wall. This painting of a painting, and an interior with figures, captures a sense of the private space and private subject matter that Denis and many of his fellow Nabis sought to create in their art, and which the new clientele of the haute bourgeoisie eagerly acquired.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Maurice Denis, ‘Cézanne–II’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 16, no. 83, February 1910, p. 275.
- Jean Paul Bouillon quoted in Gloria Groom, Beyond the easel: decorative painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890–1930, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago 2001, p. 83.
- A variant version of this composition, Women in a park (Femmes en parc) 1893, Musée Leon Dierx, St Denis de la Reunion, adds specificity and character to the women, thus detracting from their other-worldliness. See Groom, p. 85, fig. 1.
- Referring to events of 18 December 1887, Denis, Journal, vol. 1, p. 67, quoted in Guy Cogeval, ‘The heavens cannot wait: Maurice Denis and the Symbolist culture’, in Maurice Denis 1870–1943, Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju and Zoon 1994, p. 21 (Art to Art trans.).