Painter and theorist Maurice Denis (1870-1943) was a founder of the avant-garde group known as the Nabis. Like his friends and fellow members Bonnard and Vuillard, Denis favored paintings with bold compositions, rich color, and strong surface patterns. Toward the end of the century he turned to a more structured, classically inspired approach to painting. As a photographer, most of his attention was devoted to his wife, Marthe, and their seven children at home or on vacation in Brittany and Italy. From 1896 to 1919, the period when he was actively taking pictures, Denis used at least three different cameras: the Pocket Kodak 102, the Kodak No. 2 Bulls-Eye, and a bellows camera called the No. 1 Folding Pocket Kodak. Madame Denis often developed and printed the photographs, and unlike the other artists in the exhibition, she organized them into albums. In 1914 Denis also commissioned his dealer’s studio to print enlargements of select images for his children. Denis made both spontaneous snapshots and carefully posed images. Some of the techniques that occur in Denis’s nearly 2,000 photographs are extreme close-ups, unusual cropping, and off-center framing.
Two Girls, wading in the sea, swinging little Madeleine, Perros-Guirec, 1909, Gelatin silver print and On the Beach (Two Girls Against the Light), 1892, Oil on board mounted on panel.
Denis achieved similar results in these two works. In both snapshot and painting, the figures’ silhouettes are accentuated by back-lighting. Interestingly, Denis’s canvas,On the Beach (Two Girls Against the Light), predates the artist’s initial experiments with photography by four years. Denis, who often depicted his first wife Marthe and their seven children in his painted works, also captured intimate family moments with his Kodak cameras, such as in this photograph taken on vacation in Brittany. The tendency to explore a single theme in a variety of media characterizes Denis’s oeuvre, which included painting, design, illustrations, and lithography.