Born in 1870 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just west of Paris, Denis lived and worked in this area for the rest of his life. He was obsessed by art and religion from an early age, and the one permeated the other as he grew. He attended the Lycée Condorcet, Paris, where he met many of his future artistic contemporaries, then studied art simultaneously at the École des Beaux-Arts and at the Académie Julian (1888–90). With fellow students Paul Sérusier, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Ranson, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and others, he formed the Nabis, a group dedicated to a form of pictorial Symbolism based loosely on the synthetic innovations of Gauguin and Bernard. Denis’s first article, ‘Définition du néo-traditionnisme’, published in Art et critique in 1890, and republished in Théories, served almost as a group manifesto and gave a theoretical justification for the practical and technical innovations of the Pont-Aven school. Both as an artist and as a theorist, however, Denis later retreated from the radical position he had adopted as a student in 1890. He had never denied the importance of subject-matter, and in his later painting he devoted himself to the revival of religious imagery.
Denis exhibited regularly with the Symbolists and Neo-Impressionists throughout the 1890s, notably at the gallery of Louis Le Barc de Boutteville. He quickly gained a reputation and following, at first among an artistic and literary élite but later in wider circles. He mainly drew his subject-matter from his immediate surroundings, making frequent use of members of his family as models for his figure compositions, many of which have a Catholic theme. Apart from regular summer visits to Perros-Guirec in Brittany (he bought a villa, Le Silencio, there in 1908), Denis travelled to Italy, in particular to Florence, where he made a special study of the work of Fra Angelico.
Denis’s experiments with small-scale, flat and Synthetic work in the early 1890s, often in oil on cardboard, later gave way to more traditional working methods. In 1899, Denis had seen an exhibition of the works of Gauguin and his friends, and had been fascinated by their style. Adopting their bright colours, this influence can be seen in his work from this period onwards.
Denis prepared his pieces carefully with figure drawings, oil sketches and cartoons for the more complex decorative projects he undertook from around 1900 onwards. At the same moment he underwent a shift in his artistic admirations, a turning away from the more spectacular, subjective Symbolism of Gauguin and van Gogh towards more classical values. A visit to Rome with Gide in 1898 had awakened his interest in classicism. In articles published in 1907 and 1909 Denis disseminated the view that classicism was the essence of the French cultural tradition, a view that had considerable influence on a younger generation of artists in France and elsewhere.
After 1900 Denis exhibited regularly both at the Salon de la Société Nationale and at the Salon des Indépendants. His friendships and occasional working collaborations with other Nabis sustained the group’s life well after it had ceased to meet formally, and although his commitments to the revival of religious art and to such reactionary and nationalistic movements as L’Action Française set him apart, his talent as a critic and theorist made him the effective and respected spokesman of his artistic generation.
In 1919 Denis established the Ateliers d’Art Sacré with the artist Georges-Olivier Desvallières, a venture dedicated to the sound formation of young artists in the variety of methods and media required for modern religious decoration. His restoration of the 17th-century priory in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which he was able to buy in 1914, involved him in the full range of decorative work that had been proposed by the Nabis – studies for fresco and stained glass as well as designs for church furniture and ornaments. In 1980 the priory was established as the Musée Départemental du Prieuré, devoted to the works of Maurice Denis and the Nabis. He died in Paris in 1943.