Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
Maurice Denis (1870-1943)

La Cuisinière

Maurice Denis (1870-1943)
La Cuisinière
signed with monogram and dated 'MAVD 93' (lower left)
oil on canvas
32 1/8 x 23 3/8 in. (81.6 x 59.3 cm.)
Painted in 1893
Ambroise Vollard, Paris (acquired from the artist, 1901).
Private collection, France (circa 1941-1942).
J.L. Collection, Cherbourg, France (by 1994).
Acquired through Elizabeth Royer, Paris by Achim Moeller Fine Art on behalf of John C. Whitehead, 1996.
B. Thomson, "Maurice Denis: Cologne and Lyon" in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 137, no. 1103, February 1995, pp. 131-133 (illustrated, p. 132).
A. Dumas, "Maurice Denis: Subjective States" in Art in America, April 1995, pp. 74-75 (illustrated in color).
A. Delannoy, Maurice Denis, Paris, 2004, no. 16 (illustrated).
J.-P. Bouillou, Maurice Denis: Du Spirituel dans l'art, Paris, 2006, p. 25 (illustrated, p. 24).
J.-J. Lévêque, Maurice Denis, 2006, p. 110 (illustrated).
D. Delouche, Maurice Denis et le Bretague, Paris, 2009, p. 92 (illustrated).
Gauguin, Bonnard, Denis: A Russian Taste for French Art, exh. cat., Hermitage, Amsterdam, 2013, p. 93 (illustrated).
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts; Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum; Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery and Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, Maurice Denis, September 1994-September 1995, pp. 188, no. 61 (illustrated in color, p. 189; illustrated in color again on the cover).
New York, Achim Moeller Fine Art, The Whitehead Collection: Late 19th and 20th Century French Masters: A Collection in Progress, April-May 1997, p. 102, no. 64 (illustrated in color, pp. 103-104).
New York, Achim Moeller Fine Art, From Daumier to Matisse: Selections from the John C. Whitehead Collection, May 2002, pp. 52 and 83, no. 11 (illustrated in color, pp. 52 and 83).
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago and Paris, Musée d'Orsay, Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, September 2006-September 2007, pp. 87 and 350, no. 68, fig. 87 (illustrated in color, p. 87; illustrated, p. 350).

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

Claire Denis and Fabienne Stahl will include this work in their forthcoming Denis catalogue raisonné.

Not yet twenty years old, and while still a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Maurice Denis authored in 1890 a definitive statement which foreshadowed the founding principles of cubism and fauvism and established the groundwork for the theories of abstraction that would continue to develop throughout the 20th century:
“It is well to remember that a picture–before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote–is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order” (“Definition of Neo-Traditionism,” Art et Critique, Paris, 1890, in H.B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 94).
The painting La cuisinière is indeed that “plane surface covered with colors,” a compositional tour-de-force in Denis' oeuvre. It also possesses a powerful narrative, one that carries several layers of meaning in the symbolist manner, pertaining to the artist, the cook, Brittany, the New Testament and the history of European painting.
In late 1891, Denis fell in love with Marthe Meunier, a musician and devout Christian. They became engaged the following year, and despite the objections of his parents, were married in June of 1893. They celebrated their honeymoon in a house rented in the seaside Breton town of Perros-Guirec; its interior became the artist’s setting for the present painting. Among the many qualities Denis admired in his new wife, as he wrote in his journal, “she carries out the essential household tasks with total dedication” while displaying “her shy love and her taste for what is beautiful among humble domestic tasks” (Journal, I; quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 188). Martha of the New Testament, after whom Marthe was named, was also known for her dedication to the home. The artist and his wife, both devout Christians, were familiar with the teachings of the Bible and Denis believed in the importance of imbuing his work with spirituality. In 1919, Denis attempted to revive the teaching of religious art and co-founded the Studios of Sacred Art.
Madame Denis’s Christian name and character inspired the artist to turn to the story in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus visits the home of the sisters Martha and Mary of Bethany. Visible in the background of this painting, silhouetted against the window, are Jesus and Mary, while Martha--portrayed as Marthe Denis--attends to the kitchen. “Mary sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?’” (Luke 10:38-42). According to Luke, Jesus did not admonish Mary, but instead commended her for being attentive to his words.
Denis, in his painting La Cuisinière, turned the table on this parable, and instead praises Martha (Marthe) for selflessly offering up the hospitality due an honored guest. In the closely related painting Marthe au vaisselier, 1893, again set in the Perros-Guirec kitchen, Denis further underscored the metaphorical relationship between his wife and Martha by inscribing a banner above the figure of Marthe “Scta Martha”–Saint Martha.
The pictorial guise in which Denis cast this narrative, his “colors arranged in a certain order,” stemmed from the art of Gauguin, whom he called “the Master, and the undisputed one” (“The Influence of Paul Gauguin,” 1903, in H.B. Chipp, ed., op. cit., 1968, p. 102). Gauguin had guided Paul Sérusier’s brush and choice of colors when the latter painted at Pont-Aven in 1888 the small landscape that became known as Le Talisman (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) to the young students at the Académie Julien in Paris, including Denis, Bonnard, Ranson and Vuillard, who then banded together as the Nabis, “The Prophets.” Flat, patterned surfaces, firm arabesques of contour, and the most vibrant or subtle color harmonies became the hallmarks of Nabi style.
“Thus at the perfect moment, it had been Gauguin’s role to project into the spirit of several young men the dazzling revelation that art is above all a means of expression,” Denis wrote. “He had taught them that all objects of art must be decorative... He passionately loved simplicity and clarity, which he incited us to desire unreservedly. For him, synthesis and style were almost synonymous” (ibid., pp. 104 and 105).
In addition to his piers, Denis also sought inspiration in the history of art. The portrayal of Marthe in three-quarter length, her face gently turned toward the artist, as well as the rendering of the tiled floor and austere room, are reminiscent of portraits by Flemish masters whom Denis so greatly admired.

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