Saturday, April 6, 2013

Denis's Anemones

It finally feels like spring! The snow’s melted, flowers are beginning to poke up here and there, and I saw a whole flock of robins while I was out walking in the park. So to get you in the spring mood, today I bring you Maurice Denis and his 1891 oil painting April, Anemones.

Maurice Denis, April, Anemones, 1891, oil on canvas, 65 x 78 cm.

Maurice Denis was a French painter and a member of the avant-garde brotherhood known as Les Nabis. Translating to “The Prophets” in Hebrew, the Nabis began as a group of rebellious art students seeking to create a new form of expression. And they succeeded. Taking up the mantle of the Post-Impressionists (particularly Gauguin), the Nabis paved the way for Fauvism, Cubism, Modernism . . . . A huge chunk of the art we see today. But the Nabis also had a lot of weird mystical stuff going on. They referred to themselves as initiates, basically created their own secret language, and named their defining painting The Talisman.

Paul Sérusier, The Talisman, 1888, oil on wood, 27 x 21 cm.

Denis was the Nabis’ theoretician. Pointing out art’s fundamental abstraction, he reminded us that “a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, an anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” He was also incredibly Catholic, so the spiritualism suited him.

Spring was a recurring theme for Denis.  In fact, April, Anemones isn't even the only “April” painting Denis did. Shortly after completing our April, Denis did a series of paintings to decorate a girl’s bedroom based on the months of the year. There was September, October, July, and April. And the April in this series is incredibly similar to our April. Young women pick white flowers along a meandering path. There’s even the same straggly bush in the bottom left.

Maurice Denis, April, 1882, oil on canvas, 61 x 37.5 cm.

But there are differences. And the most important one is style. Both Aprils are simplified and abstracted, but April, Anemones reflects the pointillism of Seurat while the April (picture for a girl's room) is an example of cloisonnism, a technique perfected by Gauguin where areas of bold, flat color are separated by dark contours (the term cloisonnism comes from cloisonné, a metalworking technique where wire compartments, or cloisons in French, are filled with glass, enamel, or gemstone inlays). I went back and forth trying to choose between dots and outlines. There are some fantastic outline works, but in the end, dots won.

Right: Georges Seurat, Grey Weather, Grande Jatte, 1888, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 86.4 cm.
Left: Paul Gauguin, The Yellow Christ, 1889, oil on canvas, 92.1 x 73.3 cm.

When I first came across an image of April, Anemones, it was mislabeled Easter Morning. I pictured the two kneeling women hiding eggs for an impending Easter egg hunt. As you can imagine, that’s not what’s going on. One source says that the woman in white is newly engaged and that the winding path is leading her toward a new life stage. It points to the couple in the background and says that that’s what she has to look forward to: happy days strolling through the woods with her husband. And the model for the woman is Denis’s future wife Marthe Meurier, so that could be true.

I get something else out of the painting though. I still think it could be a young woman progressing through life, but in the midst of all the spring loveliness, I get a bit of a melancholy vibe. The couple in the background is dressed in black. They look like they’re in mourning. Like someone died. Maybe the girl herself. Maybe Denis was pointing out that even in the spring of life, death is lurking just out of view.


  1. Whitney, these are beautiful paintings, which I wasn't in the least familiar with. Interesting blog post!

    1. Thanks! You can see some other good ones at the Musée d'Orsay's website. I really like The Muses!