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Paul Gauguin and Maurice Denis: Ia Orana Maria vs. Springtime

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Paul Gauguin and Maurice Denis: Ia Orana Maria vs. SpringtimeGauguin’s Ia Orana Maria (1891) —– Denis’ Springtime (1894-99)

“Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, but think more of creating than of the actual result.” – Paul Gauguin1

“[Great art is] universal triumph of the imagination of the aesthetes over crude imitation; triumph of the emotion of the Beautiful over the naturalist deceit.” –Maurice Denis2


Paul Gauguin and Maurice Denis are two French artists that dealt with the issues of paint as medium and painting as art in the late 19th century. They lived amongst Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Naturalists, and Symbolists, yet they sought something new – a decorative aesthetic. Very often, Gauguin is likened as the father or founder of the group of artists to which Denis belonged, The Nabis. Though many similarities are present in both their missions and aesthetics, the connection is not quite as concrete as is frequently assumed. Denis, in particular, was never a student of Gauguin, and seemed to have used the famous and well-known artist as a tool for promotion. In his writings Denis says, “’I cannot let the vogue for Gauguin go by without doing something about it.’”3 On the other hand, Gauguin takes full responsibility for the formation of the Nabis: “’I created this new movement in painting… nothing in them comes from themselves, but through me.’”4 Despite this present tension that seems apparent between the two artists, their artwork ultimately shares similar goals – to move past an artistic movement of painting as a window onto the world, and instead, to have painting as painting. Ia Orana Maria by Gauguin (1891) and Springtime by Denis (1894-99) both display this progressive ideology, but attack the issue in very different ways.

In subject matter, the two paintings by Gauguin and Denis can seem quite similar at first glance. Firstly, both works feature women in an outdoor and natural environment, conveying the connection between femininity, fertility, and nature. In Springtime, Denis uses the blossoming tree in the foreground, a symbol of renewal, as a mirror for what he believed women represent.5 Gauguin, similarly, places fruit at the base of his canvas as a way to represent the fecundity of the women he portrays. Secondly, both works display a religious scene. Denis paints a purification scene in which a nude woman is bathed in a forest river. Ia Orana Maria serves as an “angelic salutation,”6 in which an angel comes to greet a Tahitian Mary and Jesus. The similarities in subject matter, however, end here.

Though Gauguin uses religious imagery in his painting, the overall purpose of the work is to explore the “primitivism” of the Tahitian people. In Noa Noa, Gauguin observes, “the gods of old still live in the memory of the women, and it is singularly moving to see the national gods of Tehura wake up and quiver in the veils in which the protestant missionaries thought they had shrouded them.”7 Through this quote, it can be taken that he is not attempting to depict a Christian scene, but rather, a Tahitian religious scene. Through diverse readings of the painting, the subject matter can be seen as patriarchal and colonialist, as he attempts to impose Christian, Westernized themes on the Tahitian people. His obsession with Moerenhout’s book, Voyage aux iles du Grand Ocean, and his desire to flee to “an island of Oceania… to listen to the sweet murmuring music of [his] own heart in amorous harmony with the mysterious beings around [him],”8 however, provide more evidence for the former interpretation.

Denis, on the other hand, had no desire to mask his devotion to God and his connection to Catholicism. In looking at the artistic circle of the Nabis, Denis differentiated himself from Bonnard and Vuillard in that he believed that art was the “sanctification of nature.”9 His works can be seen as deriving their subject matter and philosophy from religion, rather than the common, everyday scenes of the latter artists. In an 1885 excerpt from his diary, translated by Diane Goullard Parlante, he idolizes the work of Fra Angelico, a Christian artist from the 15th century: “I am gathering the required materials to write a practical summary of the life of this saint artist… I will go seek our Dear Father the Pope, to ask him that the Dominican be solemnly beatified. And then… I would erect for him a magnificent chapel in the middle of Paris…”10 In doing so, he shows his deep relationship to his religion and its inclusion in his works.

In looking at Ia Orana Maria chronologically in Gauguin’s oeuvre, it seems to be a more naturalistic rendition of the world than such works as those painted in Brittany. This is definitely the case in comparison to Denis’ Springtime. Gauguin’s painting exhibits shading and gradient – the figures are more contoured and convey a soft light source. Instead of planes of color, he blends his paint. This attention to the natural world, however, does not disqualify the painting from Gauguin’s portfolio of decorative artwork. The figures take on staged poses, drawing the viewer’s eye from left to right and back again. Though the work is painted on the vertical, the horizontal movement can be likened to a stiffened frieze or wall fresco. The artist also includes allusions to other decorative arts, bringing his painting into the conversation about the boundaries of fine art. His figures wear traditional Tahitian garb, referencing the art of textiles and dying. The two women in the background refer to sculpture and idol, as they take on the positioning of the Buddha and worshippers at the Barabudur Temple in Java.11 Lastly, his inclusion of text, a very anti-naturalist addition, connects the painting to the printing world.

Denis’ work is more obviously, to the untrained eye, an example of the decorative aesthetic. In one of his most famous quotes, he states, “It is well to remember that a picture – before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote – is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”12 This is a perfect description of how he organizes and forms his figures and landscape on the canvas. Unlike Gauguin’s Tahitian women, planes of color form to create Denis’. Though a light source is apparent, most likely exuding from the viewer’s eye, the highlights and shading are not blended, but instead, are painted as fields of color. The artist often utilized the arabesque, “an ornamental and sinuous line that distorted the subject in painting”13– the curves of the tree branches and the flowing of the river. Parts of the canvas show through the painting, and the surface of the work does not glisten like other oil works. This technique and style was used by the Nabis to “evoke fresco or mural painting,”14 a more decorative form of art. Denis also had a desire to connect to the past, but his “primitive” was different than that of Gauguin’s. He conflated the decorative aesthetic to “Gregorian chant, and the Gothic cathedrals,”15 the Middle Ages, more so than to “savages” and non-Western culture.

The use of color is drastically different in Ia Orana Maria and Springtime. Gauguin uses bright reds, yellows, blues, and greens, reflecting the bright color of the paréo fabrics. In past works, these colors served as symbols, an example being red as blood or passion. In Denis’ Springtime, however, the colors are soft, pastel, and mostly on the cooler side of the color spectrum. In his diary, he reflects on his viewing experience of Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin. In his description, he includes, “The colors are pale, like shadows; there are no tints, the colors are pure: reds, blues, no purple.”16 Perhaps his color palette, soft in nature, is a reflection of his desire to be more like the “saint artist.”

Gauguin, perhaps the catalyst of a movement towards a decorative aesthetic, and Denis, the spokesperson for the Nabis and this new artistic trend, both promoted décoration, an evocation and conveyance of emotion through decorative techniques. Through the allusion to textiles, sculpture, primitive idols, and the medium of paint itself, Ia Orana Maria and Springtime serve as important examples of the movement away from naturalism.

[1] Paul Gauguin to Emile Schuffenecker, Pont-Aven, 14 Aug. 1888, cited in Gloria Groom, Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890-1930, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 17.

[2] Denis, cited in Groom, Beyond the Easel, 18.

[3] Denis to Lugné-Poë, c. 1891, cited in Groom, Beyond the Easel, 38.

[4] Gauguin to his wife, March 1891, cited in Groom, Beyond the Easel, 38.

[5] Lisa M. Messinger, “Europe 1700-1900,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57.2 (1999), 48.

[6] Henri Dorra, “Ia Orana Maria,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 10.9 (1952), 255.

[7] Gauguin, cited in Dorra, “Ia Orana Maria”, 257.

[8] Gauguin, cited in Dorra, “Ia Orana Maria”, 256.

[9] Groom, Beyond the Easel, 32.

[10] Denis, August 12, 1885, cited in Diane Goullard Parlante, Maurice Denis: Lessons from Italy, (Arizona State University, 2009), 22.

[11] Dorra, “Ia Orana Maria,” 259.

[12] Denis, cited in Groom, Beyond the Easel, 17.

[13] Groom, Beyond the Easel, 34.

[14] Groom, Beyond the Easel, 35.

[15] Denis, cited in Laura Morowitz, “Anti-Semitism, Medievalism and the Art of the Fin-de-Siecle,” Oxford Art Journal, 20.1 (1997), 39.

[16] Denis, August 20, 1885, cited in Parlante, Maurice, 23.


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