The Maurice Denis museum is nestled in a beautiful building surrounded by a beautiful park in the beautiful town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The tranquility and serenity that emanate from the place are the perfect echo of the work of this ultimately little-known artist, this very Christian and very religious family man whose canvases diffuse colors that are both soft and luminous.

Maurice Denis and the Nabis painters are major and yet little-known actors in the birth of modern art. These artists come together at the time when the Impressionists revolutionize the traditional codes of painting. From Impressionism, the Nabis keep the color and the liveliness of the touch but they reject the lack of ideal of a painting which is confined to the representation of reality. In 1888, a group of young painters from the Julian Academy gather around Paul Sérusier and proclaim themselves “nabi” (“prophet” in Hebrew). These young painters are committed to creating symbolist and synthetic art. Clean lines, the expression of feelings and subjective emotions characterize the Nabi movement.

Maurice Denis becomes at the age of 20 the spokesman of the Nabis. He is best known for being an art theoretician and will be a passionate teacher who will train a whole generation of artists, within the very walls of this majestic building, baptized “Priory” by the artist himself.

The building was built at the end of the 17th century according to the wishes of Madame de Montespan – royal favorite – to accommodate poor people of the royal town of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. It was then transformed by Louis XIV into a royal general hospital. The chapel should have been in the center of the building, flanked by two wings, but only the South wing which now houses the museum was finally built.

Although born in Granville in 1870, Maurice Denis has always lived in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. He has coveted this old royal general hospital for a long time, which he calls “the Priory”. He begins by renting a room there as a workshop and then acquires the building in 1914. He lives there until his death in 1943.

La Vierge à l’Enfant – Antoine Bourdelle – The artist’s wife and child served as models to create the figures of this statue and it must be admitted that the woman, the child and the mother are very present themes in the work of Maurice Denis. This work is commissioned by an Alsatian industrialist who wishes to thank God because his village was spared during the First World War

La Douleur – Aristide Maillol – Maurice Denis and Aristide Maillol are very close. Maillol settled not far away, in Marly-le-Roi in 1903, facilitating artistic exchanges between the two men

Maurice Denis greatly appreciates his garden, to which he devotes a lot of time. The cypresses bordering the terrace evoke his stay in Italy. The height difference allows the development of terraces and a dovecote, a chicken coop and a few rabbit cages decorate the park.

Le Centaure Mourant – Antoine Bourdelle – Bourdelle is fascinated by mythology and symbols, especially by the centaur creature. Half-man, half-animal, he represents human nature in all its complexity. Here he stands with his head falling, dying. Bourdelle and Denis know each other and participate together in the decor of the Champs-Elysées Theatre. Several sculptures deposited by the Bourdelle museum in Paris mark out the park of the Priory

Even before acquiring the Priory, Maurice Denis works there. He rents a room in the building in 1910. Two years later, he is responsible for decorating the Champs-Elysées Theatre and the artist needs more space to create his paintings. He has a studio built in the garden, high enough to accommodate the monumental canvases on which he is working, but whose singular shape is imagined in order to avoid cutting down the trees that surround it. The workshop, which cannot be visited, should soon be renovated, in order to be integrated into the visit.

The chapel

Les Fiancées – Maurice Denis

Reconstruction of the dining room of Gabriel Thomas in Meudon – Maurice Denis

The Nabis have a passion for decor because it is a way for them to integrate art into everyday life. They want to make art everywhere and in everything, which explains the multiplicity of artistic supports chosen (painting, stained glass, sculpture, etc.). The Nabis produce many painted panels that adorn the homes of their sponsors. This set for “L’Éternel Printemps” was commissioned by Gabriel Thomas, Maurice Denis’ main patron. In a harmony of pinks and whites, the profane and the sacred mingle in an idealized springtime nature that is transformed into a Garden of Eden. The young girl becomes a woman then flourishes in motherhood, according to the canon of the Madonna.

Reconstruction of the dining room of Gabriel Thomas in Meudon – Maurice Denis

Plaster bas-relief executed by Joaquim Claret on a drawing by Maurice Denis

Art historian, curator of the Louvre Museum, Paul Jamot (1863-1939) called upon the architect Auguste Perret and Maurice Denis to design a monument to the memory of his wife Madeleine, who died prematurely in 1913. The three men were in contact during the construction of the Champs-Elysées Theatre and Jamot, who was able to admire on this occasion the talents of Denis, spontaneously turns to him. Delayed by the war, the project was resumed in 1919 and the monument installed in 1921 in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. The hands of the angel and the dead are at the heart of the composition imagined by Denis, which in the same movement evokes, according to Jamot’s wish, love, illness, death and resurrection.

Saintes Femmes au tombeau – Maurice Denis

Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle – Maurice Denis

Jésus chez Marthe et Marie sur le balcon de Silencio – Maurice Denis

Maurice Denis is a devout Catholic, which explains why faith is at the center of his work, where the sacred and the profane often mingle. After the Great War, he founded the Sacred Art Workshops, intended to train a new generation of Christian artists.

L’Echelle dans le feuillage – Maurice Denis

Les Pèlerins d’Emmaüs au Prieuré – Maurice Denis

The Saint-Louis chapel of the royal general hospital was inaugurated in 1718 but was left ruined after the Revolution. At the end of the XIX° century, the Jesuits set up their prayers’ space in the adjacent room with an access to the garden, until the expulsion of the religious community in 1905. Maurice Denis acquires the whole building in 1914 and renovates the chapel. This is a unique opportunity to create an ambitious religious design without the constraints of an order imposed by a priest or an architect. Maurice Denis dedicated fifteen years to this project, the faith in the resurrection being the main theme of the design.

The chapel also became a place of training for a new generation of Christian artists. The decor includes many tributes to the first wife of Maurice Denis, Marthe, who dies in 1919. The stations of the cross which adorn the walls of the chapel are painted during the very long illness which carries away the wife of the painter.

The chapel is returned to worship in 1922.

Maurice Denis museum

November 10, 2023