France 1870 – 1943
Calvary (Climbing to Calvary)
[Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire)] 1889
oil on canvas
canvas 41.0 (h) x 32.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of Dominique Maurice-Denis 1986
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The graphic intensity of this painting is immense. Calvary is one of Denis’ earliest works—a simple composition structured around the diagonal, dominated by dark tones and sombre in mood. The unmodulated mass of black, rising up like an arrow, accentuates the diagonal: only gradually do the female figures emerge as black-clad nuns, the simplicity of the cross at upper left parallels the extreme stylisation of their habits and clasped hands. These figures are cipher-like. But even if we have no knowledge of Christianity’s most sacred story, we sense that the figure with the cross, who glows with the painting’s only area of warmth, is its spiritual centre.
Denis, known as the ‘Nabi with beautiful icons’, was an ardent Catholic. As such we might expect a more immediately recognisable rendition of the moment when Mary, at the fourth station, embraces Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha. The army of lance-bearing soldiers silhouetted against the sky suggests a specific time, but the artist takes liberties: it is emotion rather than the historical event that is of interest here.1 Denis has absorbed the stylistic innovations of the Pont-Aven painters—Bernard in particular—surrendering the individuality of his figures and the specifics of place to the overall abstract and decorative qualities of his work. He had probably seen Gauguin’s and Bernard’s print portfolios, as well as another Road to Calvary 1889 by Bernard,2 shown at the Cafe Volpini exhibition. The pyramid of figures and the tiered structure of the composition—the thin strip of pale sky, the misty band of pale aqua, and the third section which comprises the hill—directs the eye upwards.
The antique soul was coarse and shallow …
Christian suffering is immense,
Like the human heart,
It suffers, then thinks,
And calmly continues along the road.
—Paul Verlaine, Sagesse (Wisdom)18813
When Denis painted this work he was reading Verlaine’s volume of poetry Sagesse (Wisdom), concerning the poet’s struggles with the Church and his religious beliefs. Denis made illustrations for Sagesse at this time, but although the author admired them the illustrated volume was not published until 1911, by Ambroise Vollard, and with wood engraving by Jacques Bellard. Denis’ 1889 illustrations were produced in the style of ancient woodcuts, and he carried this generalised medieval style through to his painting. The tiny clusters of flowers in the present work suggests a tapestry, or the painted ceiling of a Gothic chapel. The dry, matt quality of Denis’ painting was also cultivated by him to resemble frescos. There are close links between the poet’s text and the painter’s work in ‘plastic form’. While the title identifies Denis’ scene as particular to the Bible, the painting also encapsulates a more timeless, universalised expression of grief and suffering.
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
- Isabelle Gaëtan, ‘Le Calvaie (Montée au Calvaire)’, in Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux; Montréal: Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal 2006, p. 118.
- Location unknown, ex collection Ambroise Vollard, see Jean-Jacques Luthi, Emile Bernard: catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, Paris: Side 1982, cat. 239, pp. 38–39.
- XXIV. Quoted in Thérèse Barruel, ‘Calvary’, in Maurice Denis 1870–1943, Ghent: Snoeck-Ducaju and Zoom 1994, p. 123.