MAURICE DENIS (1870-1943)
MAURICE DENIS (1870-1943)
MAURICE DENIS (1870-1943)
MAURICE DENIS (1870-1943)
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MAURICE DENIS (1870-1943)

Portrait de Marthe et de Maurice

MAURICE DENIS (1870-1943)
Portrait de Marthe et de Maurice
stamped with the artist's monogram and dated '96' (lower right)
oil on canvas
26 x 35 ½ in. (66 x 90.2 cm.)
Painted in 1896
The artist's estate.
Noële Maurice-Denis Boulet [the artist's daughter].
Jean-Francois Denis, Alençon [the artist's son].
Acquired from the above on 17 March 1989, and thence by descent to the present owners.
J.-M. Nectoux, Harmonie en bleu et or, Debussy: la musique et les arts, Paris, 2005, p. 80 (illustrated).
Paris, Orangerie des Tuileries, Maurice Denis, June - August 1970, no. 102, p. 47 (illustrated).
Bremen, Kunsthalle, Maurice Denis: Gemälde, Handzeichnungen, Druckgraphik: Meisterwerke des Nachimpressionismus aus der Sammlung Maurice Denis, October - December 1971, no. 64, p. 45; this exhibition later travelled to Zurich, Kunsthaus, January - March 1972 and Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst, April - May 1972.
Paris, Musée Bourdelle, Les Barbus, June - September 1978, no. 130 (illustrated pl. XVI).
Tokyo, National Museum of Western Art, Maurice Denis, September - October 1981, no. 40 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Kyoto, The National Museum of Modern Art, October - December 1981.
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Maurice Denis 1870-1943, September - December 1994, no. 66, p. 195 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, January - April 1995; Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, April - June 1995 and Amsterdam, Van Gogh Museum, July - September 1995.
Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, De Vallotton à Dubuffet: Une collection en mouvement, acquisitions, dons, prêts, December 1996 - February 1997.
Le Cannet, Musée Bonnard, Inspirantes inspiratrices: Inspiring Muses, July - November 2018, no. 11, pp. 68, 70 & 72 (illustrated p. 73).
Cleveland, Museum of Art, Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889-1900, July - September 2021, no. 62, p. 122 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Portland, Art Museum, October 2021 - January 2022.
Further details
Claire Denis and Fabienne Stahl will include this work in their forthcoming Denis catalogue raisonné.

Brought to you by

Keith Gill
Keith Gill Head of Department

Lot Essay

Maurice Denis’s self-portrait with his wife Marthe is a painting that evokes spontaneity. When confronted with the work, one has the feeling of a picture taken in a flash – an instant captured by a camera. The painter, holding his palette in his left hand, has momentarily turned away from his work toward his beloved when the presence of a spectator surprises him. In reality, Denis cleverly organized the composition. The richness of what the he tells us through this careful staging makes Portrait de Marthe et Maurice an essential milestone in the pictorial and personal evolution of the artist.
1896, the year Portrait de Marthe et Maurice was created, was one of great creative richness for Denis. He painted Le Paravent aux colombes (1896, Paris, Musée d'Orsay), Jésus chez Marthe et Marie (1896, Saint-Petersburg, Hermitage State Museum) and he began the Portrait d’Yvonne Lerolle en trois aspects which he completed the following year. As he noted in a journal entry written that year, the present work and Portrait d’Yvonne Lerolle were conceived simultaneously, and he expressed his desire to ‘draw Marthe’s hands, review her pose in my mind – pure sky – the portrait of YL’ (M. Denis, Journal, volume I, Paris, 1957, p. 114).
The many preparatory sketches that Denis made reveal the various changes to the poses of the paintings' two protagonists, and these he began as early as 1895. The drawings show that the artist had first imagined himself facing forward but relatively quickly opted for a three-quarter pose. Such alterations are visible in the first version of the painting, Portrait de Marthe et Maurice, which he had begun in 1896 and then abandoned, only to resume in 1898 before finally leaving it unfinished.
1896 was also a year of suffering for Denis and his wife, who had lost their firstborn a few months earlier, only to suffer a subsequent miscarriage. The dream of Marthe's ‘Amours’ – which Denis wrote a poem about in 1891 followed by a suite of lithographs – as well as the happiness of their honeymoon in Brittany, were now at odds with the painful reality of their everyday lives. The tension is, without a doubt, the key to understanding Portrait de Marthe et Maurice.
Above the couple, the artist painted the decorative frieze L’Amour et la vie d’une femme, inspired by the poetry of Robert Schumann and which was later exhibited at Siegfried Bing in 1895. One can recognize the panel, La Couronne which shows a young bride wearing a veil, depicted to the left of Marthe, in a park with scattered lilies. The scene illustrates the following lines from Schumann's Lied: ‘Everything, at this hour, vibrates and radiates, / Young companions, throw flowers: / But too happy, I give up / Your circle, shedding tears’ (R. Schumann, L’amour et la vie d’une femme, trans. by A. Boutarel, Paris, p. 15).
Denis punctuates his works from 1896-1897 with reminiscences of earlier compositions to, perhaps, like a talisman, ward off his difficulties. The sofa shown in the present work, for example, is depicted in several paintings created between 1892 and 1895, including Marthe au divan (1892). Though Denis had softened the scrolls of the backrest to produce a harmony within the composition, the grey-silver fabric dotted with flowers is still recognisable.
Characteristic of Denis’ practice, motifs echo and refer to each other, at times years apart, and their reappearances are enriched by past narratives and imagery. Such scenic arrangements are not random but instead are cleverly ordered, morphing into iconography. Faced with the doubts and worries of life, Denis incorporated memories of happiness – the pale silver sofa, for example – into his paintings in anticipation of more to come. As for the imagery in the upper register, it melds the artist’s passion for both his wife and music, central elements of his personal poetics here embodied by Marthe, herself an accomplished pianist and singer.
For Denis, painting encompassed the spirituality of daily life; in moments of doubt, he made space for a renaissance. If he played with the motif of the artist-figure (feigning surprise at an intruder when in reality he arranged all the details of the work), Denis also rejected the essential role ascribed to artistic creation. He affirmed this in his Journal, writing, ‘Art remains a certain refuge, the hope of a reason in the life of this world and this consoling thought that a little beauty is thus manifested in our life, that we continue the work of creation, the harmonious law of universal life. God who has given so much perfection to the existence of beasts, and who lets us adapt to all the forces he has released in creation! So the act of artistic creation is commendable, to inscribe in the wonderful beauty of flowers, light, in the proportion of trees…and the perfection of faces, to inscribe our poor and lamentable life of suffering, hope and thought’ (M. Denis, ibid., p. 111). Happily for Denis 1896 would see the birth of his and Marthe’s daughter Noële on June 30, 1896. The couple viewed the birth as a true renewal, which he expressed the following year in Le dessert au jardin (1897, Musée départemental Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye) – albeit in a more classicizing setting than that seen in Portrait de Marthe et Maurice.

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