Maurice DENIS | Sunlight on the terrace [Taches de soleil sur la terrasse]

Maurice DENIS
France 1870 – 1943

Sunlight on the terrace
[Taches de soleil sur la terrasse]
1890
oil on card
card 24.0 (h) x 20.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1986
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

One day in October 1888, Gauguin gave Sérusier a brief painting lesson in the Bois d’Amour on the bank of the Aven River in Brittany:

How do you see these trees? They are yellow. Well, then, put down yellow. And that shadow is rather blue. So render it with pure ultramarine. Those red leaves. Use vermilion.1

The resulting small painting was taken back to Paris, to the Académie Julian, where Sérusier was a class monitor. It was a revelation to the young painters there, especially to Bonnard, Denis, Vuillard and Paul Ranson, who were shortly to form the artists’ group the Nabis, perhaps owing to this painting. The work was nicknamed ‘The talisman’, that is, a secret and magical object.

Gauguin’s instructions to Sérusier—to intensify colour and simplify form—led to short, square vertical brushstrokes, lengthened and continued as flat patches of colour. There is no focus—even a denial of all compositional arrangement—which is another reason the work was so revolutionary. Denis’ small painting Sunlight on the terrace also shows Gauguin’s influence, especially through his revelatory exhibition in the Cafe Volpini in the summer of 1889. Crucial too was the exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in May 1890.

Unlike Sérusier’s flat smooth brushstrokes however, Denis took the lesson of flatness and applied it in a strikingly different manner. Organic forms in bright red and orange contrast with light blue and darkest blue-green shapes outlined in dark yellow. The terrace is Le Notre’s famed seventeenth-century terrace at the Chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye.2 Apart from its title, Sunlight on the terrace seems pictorially comprehensible only through the figure of a child, and the trees on the right.

Although Sérusier’s The talisman was recognised as important at the time, its radical nature meant it was never exhibited in the artist’s lifetime, and neither was Denis’ Sunlight on the terrace. They were both seen as experiments rather than finished works of art. In 1890 Denis wrote that a painting ‘is essentially a flat surface covered in colour assembled in a certain order’.3 The tendency of art towards abstraction can be seen here, in the late nineteenth century, but the consequences were not to be realised until Wassily Kandinsky’s and others’ explorations in the first decades of the next century.

Christine Dixon

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

  1. Quoted in Edmund Capon, ‘Director’s foreword’, in Roland Pickvance, Gauguin and the Pont-Aven School, Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales 1994, p. 7.
  2. Denis grew up in the district of St Germain-en-Laye.
  3. ‘Définition du néo-traditionnisme’, Art et critique, no. 65, 23 August 1890, pp. 556–58.