• France, Private Collection
The Importance of Music for the Artist
Music occupies a very special place in the life and work of Maurice Denis. While he was still a student at the Julian Academy, the artist emphasized his Nabi friends’ passion for music in his Journal, and especially their pronounced taste for Wagner for whom Paul Sérusier sang tenor. Later, Maurice Denis married Marthe, who was a musician, and the couple was surrounded by composers and performers such as the pianist Blanche Selva, the opera director Jacques Rouché, and the composer Ernest Chausson. “More and more, music has great power over my sensitivities,” Denis wrote in his Journal in October 1904. This attraction took on a grandiose form in 1912 in the painter’s decoration for the cupola of the Champs Elysees Theater.
The Opera of The Legend of Saint Christopher
Maurice Denis evoloved in an era when the Opera was unavoidable and the source of intense creative activity. Whereas a number of painters actively participated in the avant-garde creations, Denis was not solicited much for stagework. His most famous completed project was Vincent d’Indy’s Legend of Saint Christopher, for which the artist created the costumes and sets. He had met the composer through the Schola Cantorum, an organization created in Cesar Franck’s circles so as to promote old music, rediscover Gregorian plain chants, and compose quality modern religious music. Vincent d’Indy, the director, followed the progress of Bernadette Denis, one of the painter’s daughters. Drawn from the Golden Legend by Jacques de Voragine, The Legend of Saint Christopher was Indy’s major work, his musical and spiritual testament. He had been working on it since 1908 and its premier performance was on June 9th, 1920 at the Paris Opera.
Maurice Denis discovered this opera in 1912 in his version for the piano, and his name was soon suggested for doing the stage sets. The fairly complex synopsis tells the story of Auferus who only wants to serve “the most powerful king,” and goes looking for him. Our work is an illustration of the key scene in the story (Act II, scene 3): Auferus, disappointed in not having been successful in his quest, is found near a torrent where he agrees to help a small child cross. The storm abates, and the young boy reassures the one who is carrying him: “Don’t be astonished, because I am the one who created the world.” Auferus’ walking stick flowers with white roses, the Child Jesus, thus revealed by the tempest’s calm, baptizes Auferus who takes the name of Christopher: the one who carries Christ.
Maurice Denis worked from this opera scene when he created the poster, the curtain and invitation ticket to the general rehearsal, which were variations on the same theme. To advertise the performance, he depicted a haloed Saint Christopher, bent under the weight of the Child Jesus who was carrying a globe, symbol of the world. The pine tree which served as a hiker’s staff has not yet flowered, and the background mountain setting, inspired from landscapes in Ardeche, is that of Act II.
Our gouache, realized in 1920 during the work on, but independently of, the The Legend of Saint Christopher, is based on the passage that follows the miracle. The painter delivers a personal interpretation in which the aesthetic, freed from the composer’s very precise instructions, is more intimate than his. Saint Christopher appears younger than on the poster and does not wear a halo. He stands in the middle of the water, leaning on his pine stick blossoming with white roses. His solid stature contrasts with that of the very young haloed Christ who is standing on a steely blue rock overlooking the saint whom he baptizes with one hand, while lifting the other in a gesture of benediction. The river water is composed of sinuous yellows, oranges, whites, and blues. In the background, pine and fir trees characteristic of Maurice Denis, with their smooth mauve silhouettes whose tops are not visible, can be seen rising above stylized blue-green bushes.
Here, Maurice Denis has created an extremely modern contemplative icon. Far removed from ethereal pious images, Saint Christopher bears himself like a man of flesh and blood, while the young Jesus certainly has assumed the features of one of the artist’s children. Comparing our Saint Christopher with Denis’ first religious images, one can detect the path taken by a man whose spiritual sensitivity ripened in relation to his artistic development. His art remained free of conventions and independent of fashions, so that he inscribed religious registers into contemporary existence without ever denying the esthetic which inspired him to write in 1910: “To remember that a picture, before being a war horse, a nude woman, or whatever anecdote, is essentially a planar surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”
The artist, who had always done a lot of drawing, was first and foremost a painter, and did not consider drawing as an end in itself.
“One has to draw in view of using the drawing. An artist’s drawing is a design: all means are good for summarizing the essentials of a monument one wishes to build, a picture one wishes to paint, a chair one wishes to make. The character of the schema thus obtained will be even more beautiful, the clearer and firmer the artist. It symbolizes the artist’s determination.”
This gouache, which has all of the three-dimensional qualities of an autonomous work, is thus preparatory for its engraving by Jacques Beltrand. The wood engraver, who was tied through friendship with Maurice Denis in 1907, became his exclusive interpreter not long after. Together with his brothers Camille and Georges, he realized color lithograph plates for twenty-three books by Denis, until the painter’s accidentally death in 1943.
We would like to thank Madame Claire Denis for having confirmed our drawing’s authenticity. It is inscribed in the archives of the Catalogue Raisonné on Maurice Denis, which is in progress by Claire Denis and Fabienne Stahl.
Delphine GRIVEL, Maurice Denis et la musique, Lyon, Symétrie, 2011
Steven Huebner, "Vincent d’Indy et le drame sacré : de Parsifal à La Légende de Saint-Christophe" in J.C. Branger et A. Ramaut, Opéra et religion sous la IIIe République, University of Saint-Etienne, 2006.
Maurice Denis dessinateur. L’œuvre dévoilé, exh. cat. Musée départemental Maurice Denis, Paris, Somogy, 2006