When Les Nabis first gathered as a group and took the Hebrew word for “prophets” as their name, Paul Gauguin shone as their guiding star for what an artist should be. Along with Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis created the greatest works of the Nabis school. Born November 25, 1870, Denis first saw Gauguin’s paintings in an exhibition of Impressionist and Synthetist works in 1889, including his Vision after the Sermon: Jacob's Struggle with the Angel (painted in 1888). Denis staged his own version of that Biblical battle in Jacob's Battle with the Angel (above, from 1893), which copies Gauguin’s own use of flat expanses of color but does away with the framework of Breton ladies to claim the vision as entirely Denis’ own.
Denis’ spirituality took a much more orthodox path than Gauguin’s. His The Road to Calvary (above, from 1889) shows the strong influence of Italian Renaissance art, which Denis later saw first hand in trips to Tuscany and Umbria in the 1890s. In The Road to Calvary, Denis composes the scene with striking originality, showing the influence of Japonisme in the strong lines of the cross cutting across the image, directing the eye of the viewer up and into the picture. The procession of darkly clad women leading up to Christ dominates the lower half of the picture. By making Christ himself faceless, Denis removes all focus on representation and concentrates it on the emotional aspects of the scene. Small details such as the golden flowers springing up from the ground serve to echo the silhouetted spears and weapons of the soldiers leading Christ to the place of his execution, adding to the pathos through juxtaposition.
In addition to his overtly religious works, Denis helped foster the Symbolist movement in France, developing illustrations for the writings of André Gide, Paul Verlaine, and Maurice Maeterlinck as well as the musical scores of Claude Debussy. Denis soon branched out into designing patterns for carpets, creating designs for stained glass and mosaic panels for churches, and even painted ceramics. Despite this versatility, Denis remained an innovative painter, creating works such as Spots of Sunlight on the Terrace (above, from 1890) that bleed with acidic color in a way that would not be duplicated until Henri Matisse and the Fauves or Emil Nolde and the German Expressionists many years later. Denis and Les Nabis greatly deserve a reevaluation in art history circles as much more than a stepping stone between Gauguin and the Post-Impressionists and the Fauvists.