Maurice DENIS | Young women at the lamp [Jeunes filles à la lampe]

Maurice DENIS
France 1870 – 1943

Young women at the lamp
[Jeunes filles à la lampe]
oil on canvas
canvas 36.0 (h) x 65.0 (w) cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon, on long-term loan to the from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris , Accepted in lieu of tax 2001
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

The two young women shown here are Marthe and Eva Meurier—sisters who were the subjects of many of Denis’ paintings. Denis and Marthe would be married two years after this painting was made, in 1893, and Young women at the lamp is imbued with the comfortable familiarity that is to be expected between an affianced couple. Marthe and Eva were both talented musicians and are shown absorbed in their music, oblivious to the presence of the painter who observes them. The tenderness of the image is created through the use of soft, undulating line. Indeed there are no straight lines in the picture at all: the women’s hair, faces, dresses, arms and shoulders are all rendered with a gentle curve.

The intimacy of the work is emphasised by the use of soft lamplight. Like many of his fellow Nabis, Denis often portrayed scenes of domestic life in an Intimist style. Characteristic of this style is the use of a single light source—most commonly a lamp or candle—to illuminate a scene (see Vallotton’s Dinner by lamplight). Here, Pointillist dots of warm yellow and peach-pink show the glow of the lamp on the women’s faces, while tinges of blue and green create shadows where the light does not fall. The use of decorative arabesques on the lampshade is also typical of Intimist works1 and prefigures Denis’ extensive use of this device in the Regatta at Perros-Guirec, painted in 1892.

As in Princess Maleine’s minuet, where Marthe is shown seated at a piano, here both sisters are shown at the instrument, Marthe bent towards it, listening intently as Eva plays. The motif of music is important in Denis’ work—both as a symbol of his love for Marthe (with whom he shared this passion), and also as a basis for his colour theory.2 In the final paragraph of his 1890 treatise, Definition of Neo-Traditionalism, Denis wrote:

And the lighting! The atmosphere! The blue arabesques in the background, with their insistent and caressing rhythm, form a prestigious accompaniment to the orange-hued motif, like the seduction of the violins in the Tannhäuser overture.3

Denis refers here to a synaesthetic interpretation of Richard Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser, thus demonstrating his belief that the visual arts can provoke an emotional response through colour and form, in the same way that music provokes emotion through the arrangement of notes into harmonies.

In Young women at the lamp, we see Denis begin to experiment with these ideas. Through the highly simplified planes of Marthe’s and Eva’s faces, the stylised arabesques, and the lamp’s soft light, Denis imparts his affections for the pair. This is not a naturalistic representation of the Meurier sisters, but an idealised expression of a young man’s love.

Emilie Owens

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. See particularly Bonnard’s aptly named Intimacy.
  2. For a detailed discussion of Denis’ musical preoccupations and their influence on his colour theory, see Gerard Vaughan, ‘Maurice Denis and the sense of music’, Oxford art journal, vol. 7, no. 1, 1984, pp. 38–48.
  3. Denis, quoted in Vaughan, p. 38 (trans. Melissa McMahon).