#FridayPainting: Maurice Denis, “The Muses”

All artists are now free to express their own personality.” Maurice Denis

Paintings hold stories that are seen and unseen. Maurice Denis’s “The Muses” brings us a view of Nine Muses, from Greek mythology.

The Nine Muses were Greek goddesses who ruled over the arts and sciences and offered inspiration in those subjects. Daughters of Zeus and and the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, each muse had a special talent.

Calliope was the muse of epic poetry, with symbols of writing tablet, stylus and lyre,

Clio was the muse of history, with symbols of scrolls, books and a laurel wreath.

Erato was the muse of love poetry, with a symbol of the cithara, an Ancient Greek musical instrument in the lyre family.

Euterpe was the muse of music, with the symbols of panpipes a and a laurel wreath,

Melpomene was the muse of tragedy, with symbols of a tragic mask, and sword.

Polyhymnia was the muse of sacred poetry, with symbols of a veil and grapes.

Terpsichore was the muse of dance, with a symbol of a lyre,

Thalia was the muse of comedy, with a symbol of a comic mask and shepherd’s crook.

Urania was the muse of astronomy, with symbols of a globe and compass.

Even as we view a painting, the embedded background story is unknown, unless we look more deeply into the past. Artists paint from experience that comes from living in an ever changing, disruptive world. Martha, the love of Maurice Denis’s life, who he featured in his paintings. The friendships that inspired his creativity – Paul Cézanne, Odilon Redon, Édouard Vuillard, André Mellerio, Ambroise Vollard, Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and Pierre Bonnard. The influence of political upheavals and current events. The connection between mythology and Christian art.

The women are the nine Muses from classical mythology who preside over the arts and sciences. Denis transforms the theme by dressing the figures in contemporary clothing and stripping them of their traditional attributes, making each muse difficult to identify. An enigmatic tenth muse is visible in the background adding to the mystical atmosphere of the scene.

The artist painted his new wife Marthe as two of the principal figures in the foreground, a device common in Denis’ paintings. Marthe is shown in profile with a text open on her lap and from behind with her bare shoulders exposed.

The National Gallery of Australia

The Muses
[Les muses] 1893
oil on canvas
Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The profoundness of our emotions comes from the sufficiency of these lines and these colors to explain themselves… everything is contained in the beauty of the work.Maurice Denis (1879 – 1943)