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It may be time now to say a word about Maurice Denis. At the age of twenty Denis had published what could be called a manifesto under the title 'A Definition of Neo-Traditionalism.' (14) The first sentence of this manifesto might make a claim to being the most often quoted sentence in art history:

'Remember that a picture, before it becomes a battle-horse, a naked woman, or any sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered by colours arranged in a certain order.'

(14) Originally published in Art et Critique, 23 & 30 August, 1890. Republished in Théories (1890-1910): Du symbolisme et de Gauguin vers un nouvel ordre classique (1912). I have used the 4th edition, L.Rouart & J.Watelin, Paris, 1920.

Denis was one of a small group of painters deeply affected by the work of Paul Gauguin and his immediate circle. They (Denis, Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard, Eduard Vuillard) are usually categorised under the name 'Nabis' (a Hebrew word meaning 'prophets') conferred on them by Paul Sérusier as a joke, but the name Gauguin himself devised, 'Synthetists', is more interesting and more resonant for subsequent developments. (15) Denis also subsequently insisted on the term 'Symbolists' but it was a particular kind of symbolism, which refused precise symbolic equivalences, an art of suggestion rather than description, following the example set in poetry by, for example, Verlaine. But perhaps the most immediately useful term would be 'anti-naturalist' - they opposed the idea, very prevalent in the mid-nineteenth century, that painting should render nature exactly as it is. They would include as a 'naturalist' tendency Impressionism, which wanted to capture a fleeting impression of 'nature'. Much of the Definition of Neo-Traditionalism is taken up with an attempt to define 'nature', in particular inveighing against 'trompe l'oeil' (the cherries that look so real the birds try to peck at them); and also against an art that requires elaborate literary explanation, an art that is not beautiful and satisfying in itself.

(15) This isn't the place to pursue the matter but broadly speaking the 'divisionist' technique of Georges Seurat was regarded as an 'analytical' approach. The terms 'analysis' and 'synthesis' became very prominent in the studios in the run-up to Cubism. The terms Analytical and Synthetic Cubism applied to the work of Picasso and Braque was a very superficial caricature of a continuous debate. I discuss this in the introduction to my translation of Gleizes and Metzinger: Du "Cubisme" at my other website -

Maurice Denis: Easter Morning, 1891

He is not, however, calling for 'abstract' of non-representational art (which would in any case have been almost unthinkable in 1890). He says:

'Let us engage in a bit of analysis. If the vulgar herd has need of a written explanation to appreciate Puvis de Chavannes' Hemicycle at the Sorbonne does that mean that it is literary? Certainly not, because such an explanation is false. Baccalaureat examiners may know that a given beautiful figure of an ephebe, languorously bending towards a semblance of water, symbolises studious youth. That is a beautiful form, esthetes, is it not? And the depth of our emotion comes from the sufficiency of those lines and colours to explain themselves as being beautiful only and divine in their beauty.'

Pierre-Cecile Puvis de Chavannes: Science, Arts and Letters, mural painting for the Grand Amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, 1887-9.

This is presumably the ephebe in question

So he says. But what he is admiring is still the beautiful form of the ephebe, not the lines and colours independent of any represented object.