Maurice DENIS | Homage to Cézanne [Hommage à Cézanne]

Maurice DENIS
France 1870 – 1943

Homage to Cézanne
[Hommage à Cézanne]
oil on canvas
canvas 180.0 (h) x 240.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of André Gide 1928
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Seven painters, a critic, a dealer and the artist’s wife gather round a work by Cézanne, who is not present. His painting, Fruit dish, glass and apples 1879–801 previously belonged to another absent artist, Gauguin. Cézanne, presumably, is far from Paris, in his beloved Provence, while Gauguin is in the South Seas. Denis pays tribute not only to the modern master, but also to earlier formal portrait groupings by Henri Fantin-Latour, particularly his debt to Eugène Delacroix made manifest in A studio at Les Batignolles 1870.2 By the respectful isolation of the older Symbolist Redon at left, Denis shows the younger generation’s debt to earlier artists. Sérusier seems to be explaining to Redon why the Nabis admire the difficult art of Cézanne.

From left to right we see Redon, Vuillard, the writer and critic André Mellerio, the dealer Ambroise Vollard, the painters Denis, Sérusier, Paul Ranson, Roussel, Bonnard, and a sole woman, Marthe Denis. The scene takes place in Vollard’s salerooms in the Rue Laffitte, with paintings by Gauguin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir on the walls.3 What does this group portrait do that could not be portrayed more precisely by a photograph? There is its size, of course: the figures are almost life-size, and viewers encounter them as equals. Another element is the dynamism of positive and negative space, a rhythm unlike that of contemporary photographic compositions, in which people are static, lined up in rows, facing the front. Denis invigorates the canvas with strong verticals, especially the slightly angled trousered legs, Bonnard’s cane, and the angled still-life by Cézanne. The painting nonetheless presents an extremely sombre, respectably-clad group of seemingly radical artists, dressed in the black suits worn by businessmen.

Homage to Cézanne was shown at the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1901, and in Brussels the same year. According to the artist’s diary, it was ridiculed: Denis referred to it as ‘that painting, which still makes the public laugh’.4 His friend, the writer André Gide, immediately offered to buy it. He kept it until 1928 when he donated it to the Musée du Luxembourg. The work therefore found its way into the national collection where it would eventually be seen in the context of Fantin-Latour’s homages to earlier heroes of modern art and culture. Less than thirty years after its creation, both Cézanne and his admirers had moved from the margins to the centre of French culture. Old conventions remain undisturbed however: men are serious creative actors, while women hover at the margins, servitors to their male superiors.

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. Museum of Modern Art. New York.
  2. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
  3. Jean-Paul Bouillon, ‘Hommage a Cézanne’, in Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Paris: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux 2006, p. 208.
  4. Letter to André Gide in Maurice Denis, Journal, vol. 1, Pais: La Colombe 1957, p. 168.