Maurice Denis
French 1870–1943

Maurice Denis’s suite of thirteen colour lithographs, Amour, is one of the great print albums produced in Paris in the 1890s. The heightened colours, reductive form and emotional content of the prints are characteristic of Denis’s art of the 1890s and reveal his engagement with Symbolist ideas. Denis was widely regarded as the leading member of the Nabis group of painters in Paris in the 1890s, a group which also included Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard. Influenced by the radical, anti-naturalistic style of Paul Gauguin, these artists pursued their modernist artistic concerns in paintings, prints, interior design and the decorative arts.

The Amour suite was inspired by Denis’s courtship with Marthe Meurier, the woman he married in 1893. Marthe is depicted in various roles in the lithographs, and each is inscribed with an evocative caption taken from the journal Denis wrote during their courtship between 1891 and 1893. These captions read like a long poem, detailing the couple’s blossoming love and reflecting the poetry of Symbolists such as Paul Verlaine, who Denis admired: Being in love makes one feel more beautiful. / Attitudes are easy and chaste. / Life becomes precious, restrained. / Twilights have the softness of old paintings.

Familiar motifs and subjects from Denis’s paintings of the 1890s appear in the prints including women depicted before a frieze of trees or in enclosed gardens, or shown picking flowers and accompanied by doves. Two of the compositions in the suite relate closely to decorative panels Denis had made as a bedroom frieze for Siegfried Bing’s Maison de l’Art Nouveau in 1895 and to a second version of this frieze the artist painted in 1897–98. These friezes explore the life journey of woman from girlhood through romance and marriage into maternity and domestic fulfilment. The Amour suite images eschew the latter stages of this journey, focusing rather on the period of courtship and an exploration of the ecstatic and transforming power of love.

In its formal qualities this suite of prints is a masterly expression of Denis’s definition of symbolism in painting as the ability of form and colour to open up for the viewer a world of ideas existing behind the painted symbol. One of the most remarkable qualities of the suite is the evocative and sonorous colours of the prints, ranging from rich, intense hues in some works to a muted, pastel palette in others. Colour was accorded primary importance by Denis in his art and theories because of its powerful capacity to convey the emotional, even spiritual, import of a subject.

The Amour suite is acclaimed as one of the greatest achievements of the revival of colour lithography in Paris in the 1890s. It was commissioned by Ambroise Vollard, the avant-garde art dealer and publisher of original prints. In 1899 Vollard published Amour, as well as two other now legendary suites of colour lithographs by Denis’s fellow Nabis, Bonnard and Vuillard. These suites are already represented in the National Gallery of Victoria – Bonnard’s in toto, Vuillard’s in part – and the Gallery is especially pleased to add Denis’s long-sought Amour suite to the collection.

Cathy Leahy, Senior Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)