France 1870 – 1943
Landscape with green trees (Green trees) (Procession under the trees)
[Paysage aux arbres verts (Les arbres verts) (La procession sous les arbres)] 1893
oil on canvas
canvas 46.0 (h) x 43.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Accepted in lieu of tax 2001
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Denis first studied art at the Lycée Condorcet, along with Vuillard and Roussel. Then, in 1888 he attended the Académie Julian, along with Bonnard and Vuillard. That year he was also accepted at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
The tutor at the Julian was Sérusier, and he told his students of the exciting artistic developments being made by Gauguin and his circle at Pont-Aven. Instead of attempting to paint what they saw, they practised an art of the ‘inner eye’.1 Denis was later to recall this new style which so astonished the young artists: ‘Instead of being windows onto the natural world, like the pictures of the Impressionists, these were large, strongly coloured decorative expanses with harsh contour lines …’2
In 1890 these young radicals formed a group calling themselves the Nabis. The term was proposed partially tongue-in-cheek by Sérusier, derived from the Hebrew word nabi meaning ‘prophet’, and coined by Sérusier’s friend, the poet and student of Hebrew, Auguste Cazalis. Initially, it was a term they adopted to amuse themselves as much as anything else. Each member then acquired their own epithet, to highlight their particular interest or personality. Bonnard was dubbed ‘the very Japanese Nabi’. The deeply religious Denis—inspired by the art of Puvis, and before him the Italian artists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, especially Fra Angelico and Sandro Botticelli—came to be known as the ‘Nabi of the beautiful icons’.
The present work is an extraordinary landscape far removed from the tenets of Impressionism. Denis’ ‘inner eye’ sees a landscape that is a dream world, with elegant outlines of beech trees silhouetted against (contre jour) nebulous clouds floating in a blue sky. Gauguin had advised the young artists to pick the most beautiful colours, rather than the colours they might actually see in the external world. Here Denis has chosen the greenest greens and the bluest blues. A group of robed women glides silently through the forest; one has been called by an angel. Through his abstracted, decorative form and ambiguous narrative, Denis has created a landscape of great mystery.
This painting has also been known as The beech trees in Kerduel. In 1893 Denis married his great love, Marthe, and they spent their honeymoon in Perros Guirec in Brittany. Close by, the Forest of Kerduel was a location noted for its medieval history and stories of King Arthur. Denis had a strong affinity for Brittany, its landscape and sea, claiming: ‘I should be a Breton, too. I’m just a Granvillois: still, it’s on the same bay as Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo.’3 This canvas, therefore, is a celebration of marriage and of a location Denis felt he strongly belonged to. It remained in his possession all his life.
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
- G.-Albert Aurier, ‘Le Symbolisme en peinture; Paul Gauguin’, Mercure de France, II, Paris, 1891, quoted in Herschel B. Chipp (trans.), Theories of modern art: a source book by artists and critics, Berkeley: University of California Press 1968, p. 89.
- Denis, ‘L’époque du symbolisme’, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, March 1934, quoted in Claire Frèches-Thory and Antoine Terrasse, Mary Pardoe (trans.), The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard and their circle, Paris: Flammarion 1990, p. 19.
- Granville was in neighbouring Normandy. Quote: Denis, Journal, vol. 1, Paris: La Colombe 1957, quoted in Frèches-Thory and Terrasse, p. 32.