Maurice Denis (French, 1870-1943) Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien
Lot 7AR
Maurice Denis (French, 1870-1943) Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien
Sold for £ 265,250 (US$ 350,286) inc. premium

Lot Details
Maurice Denis (French, 1870-1943) Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien
Maurice Denis (French, 1870-1943)
Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien
signed with the artist's monogram and dated '93' (lower left)
oil on canvas
41 x 32.5cm (16 1/8 x 12 13/16in).
Painted in 1893


    Jos Hessel (acquired from the artist, 1899); his sale, Drouot, Paris, 24 November 1941, lot 44.
    Anon. sale, Sotheby's, London, 4 December 1968, lot 52.
    Acquired at the above sale, and thence by descent to the present owner.

    Brussels, Musée Moderne, Le Salon de la Libre Esthétique, 17 February – 15 March 1894, no.137.
    Toulouse, Salon de La Dépêche de Toulouse, Exposition de peinture de 'La Dépêche de Toulouse', 15 May – 30 June 1894, no.8.
    Paris, Le Plume, Cinquième Salon des Cent, 5 – 30 October 1894, no.92.
    Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Maurice Denis, April – May 1924, no.41.
    Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, Les Maîtres de l'Art Indépendant 1895-1937, June - October 1937, no.38.

    L.-P. Fargue, L'Art Littéraire, Paris, 1893, p.49.
    S. Barazzetti-Demoulin, Maurice Denis: 25 novembre 1870-13 novembre 1943, Paris, 1945, p.279.

    This work will be included in the forthcoming Maurice Denis catalogue raisonné bring prepared by Claire Denis and Fabienne Stahl.

    In Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien Maurice Denis takes one of the most familiar compositions in the Christian tradition and presents it from an innovative perspective, giving equal importance to the setting of the composition and allowing the natural world to appear to dwarf the figures. The imposing trees tower over the central subject of the work with the saint slumped helplessly against the tree trunk. The forest appears threatening in its height, density and dark colouring, yet it forms a protective border around the scene, illustrating Denis' typical use of 'sinuous lines to circumscribe small areas in which he set his figures – areas evocative of the walled garden, the medieval symbol of virginity' (C. Frèches-Thory and A. Terrasse, The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard and their Circle, Paris, 2002, p.34).

    Dressed in virginal white, the mourning women approach the apparently lifeless Saint Sebastian with a shroud. This group also forms the focus of a lithograph Denis executed in the same year as the present composition, entitled Les Pleureuses (Cailler 69). The women's figures are united by the artist's characteristic bold black outline, which creates a homogenous whole from a group of individuals. This sense of unity is enhanced by the pattern of their garments which neither bends nor creases against the contours of their bodies. The stylised leaves on the trees, the blades of grass and the flowers on the forest floor repeat this decorative motif and reinforce the flatness of the picture plane. Any sense of depth or perspective is created through areas of colour, onto which 'motifs are applied like silhouettes' (C. Frèches-Thory and A. Terrasse, op. cit., p.26). Even Denis' stylised vertical monogram serves to reinforce the two-dimensionality of the canvas.

    Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien is a characteristic subject for Denis, who throughout his career informed his Symbolist leanings with a strong Catholic faith. An admirer of Fra Angelico, whose paintings he studied in the Louvre, he was determined to pursue a spiritual artistic path from the age of just fourteen. Writing in his journal in 1885, Denis declared: 'yes, I must become a Christian painter, I must celebrate all the miracles of Christianity, I feel this is what I must do.' (quoted in C. Chassé, The Nabis and their Period, London, 1969, p.57).

    Indeed, the link between his faith and his work was such that among fellow members of what became known as the Nabis he was labelled the 'Nabi aux belle icônes'. While he would often take religious tableaux, legends and poems as his subjects, Denis also imbued the natural world around with him with a sense of spirituality. Writing at the age of nineteen, he proposed that 'art should sanctify nature and that the aesthete's mission is to transform beautiful things into everlasting icons' (quoted in C. Frèches-Thory and A. Terrasse, op. cit., p.34).

    Denis studied at the Academy Julian in Paris, finding among his earnest contemporaries a group of artists who formed the brotherhood that became known as the Nabis, including Ker-Xavier Roussel, Edouard Vuillard, Paul Ransom, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Sérusier. Sérusier travelled to Pont-Aven in the summer of 1888 and returned to Paris with his key work The Talisman, executed under the close supervision of Paul Gauguin. This near abstract exercise in Cloisonnism initiated the formation of the group that became known, somewhat jokingly as The Prophets, (Les Nabis). Denis would become the movement's theorist, writing the now infamous statement in his essay 'Néo-traditionnisme' in Art et Critique in 1890:

    'Remember that a painting – before being a charger, a nude woman, or one anecdote or another – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.' (R. T. Clement, Four French Symbolists: A Sourcebook on Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, Odilon Redon and Maurice Denis, Westport and London, 1996, p.443).

    The term 'néo-traditionnisme' was soon dropped in favour of Symbolism, but this statement would become the manifesto of the Nabi movement and an ethos which is very clearly expressed in the present composition. A sense of melancholy stillness is evoked in Denis' flatly applied paint, whose planes are broken up only by areas of stylised decorative motif. Seeking to free painting from the mere depiction of nature, the Nabis wished to celebrate art and decoration in their own right. To this end, they would decorate not just canvases but walls, ceilings, textiles and ceramics as well as designing theatre sets, costumes and programmes. Denis had worked on a number of illustrations for André Gide and Maurice Maeterlinck in 1893, as well as the set design and costumes for Dujardin's 'La Fin d'Antonia', and an illustrative line and sense of theatrical staging can certainly be seen in Le martyre de Saint-Sébastien.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note the following amended provenance: PROVENANCE Jos Hessel (acquired from the artist, 1899). Anon. sale, Me Alphonse Bellier, Drouot, Paris, 24 November 1941, lot 44. Anon. sale, Sotheby's, London, 4 December 1968, lot 52. Acquired at the above sale, and thence by descent to the present owner.
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