Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Beard, Dorathea K.

Degree Name

M.A. (Master of Arts)

Legacy Department

Department of Art


Denis; Maurice; 1870-1943; Art--Philosophy


Se rappeler qu'un tableau--avant d'être un cheval de bataille, une femme nue, ou une quelconque anecdote—est essentiellement une surface plane recouverte de couleurs en un certain ordre assemblées. In the August 1890 issue of Art en critique Maurice Denis' "Définition de néo-traditionnisme" made its first appearance. Stressing the premise that the importance of a work of art lies in the emotive capabilities of lines and colors in themselves, regardless of the subject matter portrayed, Denis voiced a rejection of the Naturalist esthetic and the prevalent academic mode of painting. Finding fault with the Naturalists' materialistic and realistic bias, Denis attacked a world in which reality was reduced to scientifically and statistically observed facts. Denis also found it necessary to criticize the artists who followed an alternate esthetic path, Symbolism. Placing their faith in another reality, the personal reality of the artist's visions and imagination, Symbolist artists and poets emphasized metaphysical aspirations, intuitive insight, and the realm of dream and mystery. Symbolist poets were successful in achieving this ideal through the evocative possibilities of word sounds, but Symbolist artists could not divorce themselves from a naturalistic traditional mode of painting to express their visions. Consequently, they retreated to literary and allegorical subject matter. Finding validity in Symbolist goals but finding fault in the painterly means of depicting Symbolist ideals, Denis' "Définition" reflects a current of thought first born in the late 1880’s at Pont-Aven where Paul Gauguin, Émile Bernard and other artists were experimenting with the simplification of design, the rhythm of line, the lessening or total rejection of perspective, and the expressive possibilities of flat color areas in their canvases. Under the banner of Synthetism and the leadership of Gauguin, these artists sought to capture the essence of their emotions through the basic elements of a painting, line and color, and the conscious manipulation and distortion of nature. Denis' contact with the ideas of Gauguin and the "School of Pont-Aven" came indirectly through Paul Sérusier a fellow classmate at the Academie Julian, and an arbitrarily colored, semi-abstract landscape painted by Sérusier under the guidance of Gauguin. Later dubbed the Talisman, the painting communicated visually the synthetist goals of Gauguin while Serusier viewed the works of Gauguin, Bernard and other members of the Synthetist circle at l'Exposition des Peintres Synthétistes et Symbolistes at the Café Volpini in Paris. Struck by the iconic and emotive direction of the works, Denis found a starting point from which to formulate the premises contained in his "Définition". The theoretical contributions of Paul Sérusier also played a definitive role in Denis' writing. Denis' emphasis on the esthetic aspect of the work of art was directly linked to Sérusier's Theory of Correspondences which was based on the belief that the subjective imaginative response of an artist must find a plastic equivalent in the harmonious representation of the painterly elements of line and color upon the canvas. Neither in the thought of Gauguin nor any other Synthetist theoretician does this preoccupation with beauty in the work of art occupy such a prominent position. The esthetic concern in Denis' "Définition", therefore, must be attributed to Sérusier. Denis' premises had far-reaching effects-as evidenced by the artistic contributions of the early twentieth century. Denis' stress on the personal freedom of the artist to portray nature subjectively and his insistence on the emotive possibilities and importance of line and color found expression in the art works of the Fauves and more radically in the abstractions of Kandinsky.


Includes bibliographical references.||Includes illustrations.


iv, 79 pages, 8 unnumbered pages




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