Paul Sérusier.

The paintings by today’s artist are highly colourful and whose early works showcased the people and landscapes of Brittany.  His works have a strong resemblance to paintings by Paul Gaugin and as you read further on you will see the reason for this similarity.  My artist today is the French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Sérusier.

Paul Sérusier, or to give him his full name, Louis-Paul-Henri Sérusier, was born on November 9th, 1864, in Paris.  He was born into a prosperous middle-class family.  His father, of Flemish descent, was a successful businessman in the perfume industry, and was able to afford to give his son a good education. In 1875, aged ten, Paul entered the Lycée Fontane, later known as Lycée Condorcet, one of the four oldest high schools in Paris and also one of the most prestigious.  It was here that Sérusier studied classical philosophy, Greek and Latin, and the sciences. Also attending this school were fellow students and future artists Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, and Ker-Xavier Roussel.  Sérusier graduated from the Lycée in 1883 with two baccalaureates, one in philosophy and one in the sciences.  Paul’s father wanted his son to have a career in business and arranged for him to join the company of his friend as a salesman but after a short period Paul realised that life in business was not for him as he had set his heart on becoming an artist and in 1885 he enrolled at the Académie Julian where once again he was with his friend Maurice Denis and a life-long friendship between the two began.


The Weaver by Paul Sérusier (1888)

Before we look at Sérusier’s post 1888 paintings I wanted to show you one of his Realist paintings which he completed in early 1888 before he made the trip to Pont Aven.  It is so different in comparison of what was to come.  It was entitled The Breton Weaver.

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Pont-Aven: towards the Bois d’Amour

Pont-Aven, a commune in the Finistère department of Brittany in northwestern France became one of the most popular and influential art colonies, visited by hundreds or even thousands of artists, well into the twentieth century. In 1888, Sérusier arrived at Pont-Aven and his attention was soon attracted by a group of artists who crowded around Emile Bernand and Paul Gauguin. Sérusier was finally introduced to them and even received a lesson from Gauguin. Gauguin encouraged the young artist to free himself from the limitations of imitative painting, and instead use pure colours.  He was also advised to overstress his impressions, and by doing this, give to the painting his own, decorative rational and symbolic structure.

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Bois d’Amour in Pont-Aven by Paul Sérusier.  Later known as The Talisman.

That summer, Paul Sérusier listened to and took part in conversations with Bernard and his friend Paul Gauguin discussing their ideas concerning moving on from Impressionism and its fixation with studies of light and nature and rather simplify, interpret, and arrange nature.  At the beginning of October 1888, with artistic advice from Gauguin, Sérusier painted Bois d’Amour in Pont-Aven.  It is a pioneering work in its use of flat surfaces in random colours.  So, what made Sérusier choose this location?  The French writer Denise Lelouche described the location writing:

“…The Bois d’Amour, where all the painters from the Pont-Aven community liked to come, seduced by the stillness of the place, the beauty of these venerable trees, the richness of the reflexions constantly disturbed by the flow of the river colliding with the granitic rocks, and the clouds sweeping and shading the light according to the wind…”

The Bois d’Amour, or “Wood of Love” is located on the heights of Pont-Aven and used to be a hotspot of inspiration for the artists staying in Pont-Aven.  The story behind this painting starts in October 1888 when twenty-four-year-old Paul Sérusier, travelled to the artist’s colony at Pont-Aven in Brittany, with a letter of introduction to Paul Gauguin. With his letter to Gauguin from Émile Bernard, his idea was to make studies of nature in the picturesque countryside around Pont-Aven.  Sérusier later described his experience to Maurice Denis, recounting how he and Gauguin had walked to the Bois d’Amour, a picturesque landscape of forest and rocks along the river Aven, not far from the village. Gaugin encouraged Sérusier to forgo modelling, perspective, and all such attempts at three-dimensional effects and to use a simplified colour palette It was here that Gaugin asked Sérusier how he saw these trees? Sérusier replied that they were yellow. Gaugin then continued that Sérusier should put some yellow. This shadow, it’s rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine. Those red leaves? Put vermillion.  On the back of the Bois d’Amour canvas, Sérusier wrote

“…Made in October 1888 under the direction of Gauguin by P. Sérusier at Pont-Aven…”

Breton Women, the Meeting in the Sacred Grove, c.1892 - Paul Serusier

Breton Women, the Meeting in the Sacred Groveby Paul Sérusier (c.1892)

Sérusier returned to Paris with the painting and showed it to his fellow students at the Académie Julian. Many derided the work for its garish blocks of colour but several, particularly Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Paul Ranson, Henri-Gabriel Ibels and Renée Piot, were highly enthusiastic about this new way of depicting a landscape.   Sérusier proposed to them the creation of the artistic fellowship of the Nabis, a term which in Hebrew means “prophet”.  He was to play an important role, both as an artist and as a theoretician.  The painting was placed in the studio of the oldest of the painters, Paul-Élie Ranson, age twenty-four, at 25, boulevard du Montparnasse. It was Ranson who gave the painting the name The Talisman.  When it was first exhibited in 1903, Maurice Denis wrote:

“…Thus we were presented, for the first time, in a form that was paradoxical and unforgettable, the fertile concept of a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order…”

The reputation of Paul Sérusier and his painting, The Talisman, was kept alive by the efforts of Maurice Denis, who was the chief theorist and historian of the Nabis, He became the guardian of the painting in about 1903 and wrote continually about the importance of the artist and the work. After the death of Denis in 1943, the painting became part of the collection of the French government, and eventually of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Ironically, The Talisman was not a completed work as Sérusier intended it to be a simple sketch which would later be used for a future work.


Landscape at Le Pouldu by Paul Sérusier (1890)

This group of young Académie students known as Les Nabis held Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne in high esteem and set their minds to renew the art of painting, but each varied greatly in their individual styles. Their common belief was that a work of art was not a depiction of nature, but a synthesis of metaphors and symbols created by the artist.  The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist.  Les Nabis held their final exhibition in 1900 and then went their separate ways.

Undergrowth at Huelgoat, 1905 - Paul Serusier

Undergrowth at Huelgoat by Paul Sérusier (1905)

Sérusier returned to Paris in the Autumn of 1889.  The following year he gave up his studies at the Académie Julian saying he no longer believed in the academy teachings.  In the summers of 1889 and 1890, Sérusier returned to Brittany to work with Gauguin in the coastal Breton village of Le Pouldu. There, he was deeply moved by the simple and pious life of the Breton people.   After Gauguin  left for Tahiti in April 1891, Sérusier remained for the summer in Brittany as he found plenty of atmosphere there and did not feel any need to go elsewhere.  The works he painted during this period are brightly coloured; in Gauguin’s style, but were said to be less forceful and more ‘anecdotal’.

Shepherd in the Valley of Chateauneuf - Paul Serusier

Shepherd in the Valley of Chateauneuf by Paul Sérusier (1917)

In 1891 Sérusier established his atelier in the towns of Huelgoat and two years later in Châteauneuf-du-Faou, where he continued to paint Breton women, usually immersed in their everyday chores, allowing himself to be guided by the example of his master and by his interest in Japanese prints. His trips to Paris were reduced to short breaks during the winters, in order to exhibit with his fellow Nabi artists.

Sérusier enjoyed his time in Paris as in the French capital he had the company of his Polish mistress, Gabriela Zapolska, but when she suddenly left him in 1895, he decided to isolate himself in the Britanny commune of Châteauneuf-du-Faou.  Sérusier became depressed with his life during 1897 and in 1898 went through a period of intellectual doubt only resolved in 1902.


Washerwomen by Paul Sérusier (1886/1897)

Although the date given for the completion of Sérusier’s Washerwomen painting is around 1897, it is thought that work started on this depiction around 1886 when he was attending the Académie Julian.

Portrait of Paul Ranson in Nabi Costume by Paul Sérusier (1890)

One of Sérusier’s fellow member of Les Nabis was the French painter Paul Ranson and in 1890 Sérusier completed a portrait of his friend. In the depiction Ranson, who was famed for his religious works, is portrayed in the role of a bishop seen clutching an ornate crosier in his left hand whilst studying the text of an illuminated book.

Breton Wrestling by Paul Sérusier (1891)

One of the popular sports during the days Sérusier was living in Brittany was Breton Wrestling, where it is known as gouren. Gouren is a style of folk wrestling which has been established in Brittany for several centuries. 

A pencil portrait of Desiderius Lenz in 1860 by Gabriel Wüger 

In 1898, mainly thanks to his friend, the Dutch Post-Impressionist and Christian Symbolist painter, Jan Verkade, who was close to the Nabi group he found a kind of solace. Sérusier visited Verkade at the monastery of Beuron in Southwest Germany, where Verkade had been living since his conversion to Catholicism and entering the Benedictine Order. Whilst living at the monastery, Sérusier was taught by the artist and Benedictine monk Desiderius Lenz, who together with Gabriel Wüger founded the Beuron Art School.

Still Life with Churn, 1925 - Paul Serusier
Still Life with Churn by Paul Sérusier (1925)

From then on, Sérusier developed a complex theory on the use of colour consisting in the separation of warm and cold colours, in order to avoid chromatic dissonance. At the same time, Gauguin’s influence began to give way to a more hieratic and allegorical painting, inspired by medieval tapestries. He spent a great deal of time studying Egyptian art, the Italian primitivists, and the tapestries of the Middle Ages so that he could create decorative works of a mysterious and calculated timelessness


In 1908, Sérusier began to teach painting at the Académie Ranson in Paris and one of his first students was the artist daughter of an army officer, Marguerite Gabriel-Claude.  She was born in Lons-le-Saunier on March 12, 1879.  She attended the maison d’éducation of the Légion d’honneur and later was a student at the Beaux-Arts in Paris. She then enrolled at the Académie Ranson where she met and became friends with Sérusier.


Friendship soon turned to love and on February 22nd, 1912, Abbé Ackermann, who had been Paul Sérusier’s former philosophy teacher at the Lycée Condorcet, blessed the marriage of the two artists at the Paris Church of Saint-Sulpice. The couple went to live in Sérusier new house at 27 Duchenn Glaz. That same year Sérusier completed a painting of his wife entitled Madame Sérusier à l’ombrelle.

Fichier:Lanscape screen-Marguerite Serusier-1900.jpg
Marguerite Sérusier , Landscape with Valleys, c.1910, painted screen, Paris, Musée d’Orsay.

Marguerite Sérusier loved the art of tapestry, and it was she who encouraged her husband to persevere in wall art. Thus, around 1913, the plasters of the vestibule, the corridor and the staircase of their residence were decorated with astonishing achievements on religious, pagan or esoteric themes. It was also Marguerite who encouraged her husband to resume his project of decorating the walls of the baptistery of the parish church of Saint-Julien in Châteauneuf-du-Faou, which was carried out from 1914 to 1917.

His experience as a teacher led him years later to publish his 1921 guidebook ABC de la peinture.

Whilst visiting his wife in hospital in Morlaix, Paul Sérusier died of a heart attack on October 6th, 1927, a month before his sixty-third birthday. His wife Marguerite died in September 1950 and is buried in Morlaix with her husband.

Maurice Denis. Part 1 – Les Nabis

Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House by Maurice Denis (1916)
Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House by Maurice Denis (1916)

Remember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.

Maurice Denis


Today I am looking at the life and some works by the great French painter, designer, printmaker and writer, Maurice Denis whose Christian upbringing had an influence on many of his works.  His writings on art theory and his paintings were to influence future painters and in some ways heralded the arrival of cubism, fauvism and abstract art.

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis
Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

Maurice Denis was born in November 1870 in the fishing port of Granville in the Manche department of north-west France.  This Normandy coastal town with its scenic coastline and its countryside hinterland were very picturesque and would feature in many of Denis works.  He was the only son of Constant Eugène Denis and Hortense Denis (née Hadde).  Maurice was born into a wealthy family and benefited from this by attending the best school and academies.

The Denis family, who had been living in Paris, had moved out of the French capital to avoid the Franco-Prussian war which culminated in the capital being besieged by the Prussian army in September 1870.  After the war the family returned to Paris and went to live in the western suburb of Saint Germain-en-Laye which was to be Maurice’s home town for the rest of his life.  In 1882, aged eleven, Maurice enrolled at the Lycée Condorcet, which was founded in 1803 and  was one of the four oldest and most esteemed high schools in Paris   Fellow students at the school were his future contemporary artists, Édouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel and the future theatre director and set designer, Aurélien Lugné-Poe.  Maurice completed his secondary schooling in 1888 and due to his family’s financial status was able to enrol simultaneously in the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian where one of his tutors was Jules Lefebvre.

Pluie en Bretagne by Maurice Denis (1889)
Pluie en Bretagne by Maurice Denis (1889)

Also studying at the Académie Julian at that time was another aspiring artist, Paul Sérusier.  Sérusier, who was six years older than Denis, had also studied at the Lycée Condorcet high school.  During the summer of 1888 Sérusier had spent his time at Pont-Aven in Brittany, which was a popular meeting place for artists. It was during that summer stay that Sérusier met the French painters, Émile Bernard and Paul Gaugin.  Sérusier sat in on many conversations between Paul Gaugin, Louis Anquetin and Émile Bernard, the latter postulating many artistic theories which intrigued his listeners.  For Bernard, simplicity should be the key to paintings and both he and Gaugin would talk about what art genre should follow and differ from Impressionism which had been so popular during the late nineteenth century but it was around the late 1880’s that the Impressionist artists were starting to look at other styles of painting. Sérusier learnt about painting techniques whilst he was at Pont-Aven and one of the last paintings he did that summer was a small landscape work which he called The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour.  When he returned to Paris he explained to Maurice Denis and some of the other students that Gaugin had coached him during this painting and Sérusier quoted Gaugin’s words:

“…How do you see these trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermilion…”

The Talisman, The Aven River at the Bois d'Amour by Paul Sérusier (1888)
The Talisman, The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour by Paul Sérusier (1888)

Gaugin’s advice to Sérusier was to strengthen the colour but at the same time make the form simpler.  Whereas Impressionists would want to paint what they saw and how natural light affected the scene, this was replaced by the artist searching for coloured equivalents.  Maurice Denis and some of his fellow students, Vuillard, Bonnard and Paul Ranson were fascinated by the work and the change of emphasis in the painting technique.  This to them was a new beginning.  They nicknamed Sérusier’s work “The Talisman”, as for them it was looked upon as a secret and magical object that would change their ideas on artistic technique.  This was an early example of Synthetism in art, a term used by Gaugin, often termed Cloisonnism , a term given to it by Édouard Dujardin, a writer and art critic, of the style developed by Bernard and Anquetin, inspired by both stained glass  and Japanese ukiyo-e prints.  It emphasized two-dimensional flat patterns which was totally different to the techniques used by the Impressionists.

Beauty in the Autumn Wood by Maurice Denis (1892)
Beauty in the Autumn Wood by Maurice Denis (1892)

Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Ranson, the four students who had been amazed by the painting which Sérusier had brought back from Pont-Aven soon after formed themselves into art group and called themselves Les Nabis, which is a Hebrew word for “prophets”.  It was a kind of secret brotherhood committed to a type of pictorial Symbolism.  The term Les Nabis was thought up by the poet and physician, Henri Cazalis, who drew a parallel between the ways of the group of painters, as prophets of modern art, aspired to invigorate painting in the same way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel. Other artists studying with Denis at Académie Julian, such as Odilon Redon, Félix Vallotton and Ker-Xavier Roussel also became part of Les Nabis.  This group of young artists were fundamentally opposed to the naturalism technique, the true-to-life style which involved the representation or depiction of nature and people with the least possible distortion or interpretation, which was taught by their Academy teachers.

Maurice Denis was a lover of art theory and at the time published an article, Définition du néo-tranditionnisme in August 1890 in the periodical, Art et Critique, in which he defended their new ideas on art and this became Les Nabi’s manifesto.  It was a definitive declaration which signified the founding philosophies of cubism and fauvism and set up the foundation for the theories of abstraction that would carry on expanding throughout the 20th century.  The article opened with the famous lines:

“…It is well to remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order…”

Nouvelles théories sur l'art moderne [et] sur l'art sacré, 1914-1921 by Maurice Denis
Nouvelles théories sur l’art moderne [et] sur l’art sacré, 1914-1921 by Maurice Denis

Denis would later, in 1922, publish a collection of  his historical and theoretical work in one book entitled Nouvelles théories sur l’art moderne, sur l’art sacré (New Theories of Modern and Sacred Art), often simply referred to as “Theories by Maurice Denis.”

Sunlight on the Terrace by Maurice Denis (1890)
Sunlight on the Terrace by Maurice Denis (1890)

Maurice Denis produced a small painting in 1889 entitled Sunlight on the Terrace which illustrated the style used by the Sérusier/Gaugin Talisman painting and the works on show at the 1889 Volpini Exhibition.    The story behind this exhibition and how it came into being is, to say the least, unusual.  The Académie des Beaux Arts was holding an official art exhibition as part of the Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair designed to flaunt French cultural and industrial might, and its signature attraction was the 300-meter tower of Gustave Eiffel.  Artists were invited to submit paintings for this exhibition which then had to be sanctioned by the selection jurists.  Gaugin and Les Nabis painters realised they would not be invited to submit their works for public viewing and decided to hold a “counter exhibition”.

Volpini Exhibition poster
Volpini Exhibition poster

This was made possible when the painter, Emile Schuffenecker, a friend of Gaugin, discovered that across from the main exhibition on the Champ de Mars was the Grand Café des Arts.  The owner of the café was Monsieur Volpini who was, at the time, arranging the inside furnishings for the café but was distraught to be informed that the large decorative mirrors he had ordered for the walls, and which were coming from Italy, had been delayed and so was delighted to be approached by Schuffenecker who offered to decorate the walls of the café with their paintings.  The exhibition was the initial showing of paintings which reflected the progressive ideas of Gauguin and other artists of the Pont-Aven School. The exhibition became known as the Volpini Exhibition.

A Studio at Les Batignolles, Un atelier aux Batignolles by Henri Fantin-Letour (1870)
A Studio at Les Batignolles, Un atelier aux Batignolles by Henri Fantin-Letour (1870)

In My Daily Art Display (February 3rd 2012) I looked at a painting completed in 1870 by Henri Fantin-Letour entitled A Studio at Les Batignolles.  It was a depiction of a group of artists at the atelier of Édouard Manet whom we see surrounded by his artist friends.  It was a painting which pictorially documented the group of popular artists of the time.

The next painting I am showing you was one done in a similar vein by Denis.  Although Les Nabis as a group had started to go their own ways around 1899 this painting by Maurice Denis entitled Homage to Cézanne was not completed until 1901.  It is a large work of art measuring 180 x 240cms which makes the figures almost life-sized. The setting for the work is the shop belonging to the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, which was in the Rue Laffitte, a street in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.  Les Nabis artists used to meet regularly at the home of one of their group, Paul Ranson and talk about their art and this painting was a reminder of those get-togethers.  In the background, hanging on the rear wall we can just make out works by Renoir and Gaugin.  This pictorial recorded meeting was to celebrate Paul Cézanne and on the easel in the centre of the painting is his 1880 still-life work Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples.  The presence of this painting was another reminder of Paul Gaugin who owned the work but was not present as he had six years earlier set off for a new life in Martinique and Tahiti.  Gaugin had been a great fan of Cézanne describing him as:

“… an exceptional pearl, the apple of my eye…”

Homage to Cézanne by Maurice Denis (1900)
Homage to Cézanne by Maurice Denis (1900)

The gathered artists along with some art critics and art dealers are all dressed in black suits, which is strange attire for such a gathering of the avant-garde Nabis.  On the far left is Paul Sérusier, the leader of Les Nabis who is in conversation with the bearded painter Odilon Redon.  At the back on the left we have the painter Jean-Édouard Vuillard.  Behind him wearing a top hat is André Mellerio, a French art critic who endorsed the cause of Symbolism and was the biographer, and great friend of Odilon Redon.    Behind the easel to the right of Mellerio, and seen holding the easel’s upright, is the art dealer and host, Ambroise Vollard.  Further to the right is Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and on the far right with pipe in hand, Pierre Bonnard.  It is also interesting to note that Maurice Denis included his wife, Marthe in the painting, whom we see in the right background.

In my final look at the life and works of Maurice Denis I will be looking at his later works which would centre around his devout religious beliefs.