France 1870 – 1943
Princess Maleine's minuet (Marthe at the piano)
[Le menuet de la princesse Maleine (Marthe au piano)] 1891
oil on canvas
canvas 95.0 (h) x 60.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Accepted in lieu of tax 1999
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Denis, a founding member of the Nabis group, believed that ‘every work of art was a transposition, a caricature, the passionate equivalent of a sensation experienced’.1 In this painting the particular ‘sensation’ Denis depicts is his love for his fiancée Marthe Meurier. She is shown here in a state of contemplation, turned slightly towards the viewer in three-quarter profile with her slender hands resting on the piano. This is one of the earliest of many portraits of Marthe painted by Denis, and she would remain a constant source of inspiration to the artist, even after her death.
Denis’ Nabis roots are obvious in the highly decorative and whimsical nature of this canvas. The curls of Marthe’s hair blend with the ornamental wallpaper, while the rhythmic lines created by her dress and elongated arms and fingers echo the arabesques on the frontispiece of the music behind her on the piano. Denis designed the frontispiece for this music, ‘Princess Maleine’s Minuet’, himself.2 The score was composed by Pierre Hermant and based on the play The Princess Maleine by Maurice Maeterlinck. The violence of the play provides a stark contrast to Marthe’s serene attitude here: it is a tragic account of thwarted love, in which the protagonist Princess Maleine is murdered and, enraged by her death, her lover Prince Hjalmar kills himself and his new fiancée.
Here, however, the Princess Maleine tale operates as a symbol of the couple’s love. A key figure in the Symbolist movement, Denis employs metaphors of personal significance to represent abstract ideas throughout his oeuvre. The Princesse Maleine was a favourite of both Denis and Marthe. The central themes of fate and the triumph of love over death were no doubt attractive to a pair of young lovers. Denis reports in his diary that Marthe ‘is reading again The Princess Maleine until two in the morning’.3 Music was significant to the couple,4 and in accordance with the Nabis’ desire to integrate all the arts, the score’s presence unites literature, music and painting.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Denis, quoted in Wladyslawa Jaworska, Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School, London: Thames and Hudson 1972, p. 124.
- Like many members of the Nabis group, Denis worked across a variety of media. He often designed stage sets and programs for theatre productions and musical concerts. The design for the frontispiece of the score featured in this painting has, unfortunately, been lost.
- Maurice Denis, Journal, vol. 1, Paris: La Colombe 1957, quoted in Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux; Montréal: Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal 2006, p. 132.
- Marthe was an accomplished musician and often performed in concerts.