Posted on Jul 20, 2021 at 2:21 PMUpdated on Jul 21, 2021, 3:07 PM
“My promised land”, it is in these terms that the painter Maurice Denis, one of the leaders of the Nabis movement, evokes his vast home in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. As a child, he lived near the building, the tall windows of which he enjoyed and the ocher colors of the setting sun. Evocations of the Priory, name that the artist will give to the places, will be found in the first drawings of the young Denis.
It is true that there is nothing ordinary about the property: a former royal general hospital, it was built at the end of the 17th century for the needy, at the request of Mme de Montespan. For a while abandoned, it hosted a Jesuit community in the second part of the 18th century, until the latter left in 1903, in the midst of a conflict between the republic and the church … The whole, classified as a historic monument, ended up being put on sale in 1914.
Workshop for the sets of the Champs Elysées theater
Maurice Denis, who married in 1893, still lived in an apartment next to the building at that time. But, he has already managed to set up his workshop in the gardens of the former hospital-convent… In 1912, he indeed received a gigantic commission: to paint the sets of the Champs Elysées theater under construction. The artist needs a workshop the size of this titanic work (375 m2 just for the Cupola). Maurice Denis asked the owner of the “Priory” at the time to accept the construction of a building in the gardens. The plans, largely imagined by Maurice Denis, are signed by the architect Auguste Perret. Local masons build the building.
Two years later, Maurice Denis seized the opportunity to acquire the ensemble. He thus found himself, in 1914, owner of a three-storey house of over 1,000 m2 (with ten meters high ceilings in places) and 10,000 m2 of gardens. It will be his haven, his refuge… that he will keep until the end of his life and where he will house his nine children, from two marriages. The building is large enough to accommodate a real community: some of Maurice Denis’ sons will even live there with their own children. Friends painters, Bonnard or Vuillard in the lead, are also welcome and become regular guests of the “Priory”.
Theorist of the Nabis group
If the Priory is a superb residence, it is singularly lacking in comfort! His friend the painter Félix Valloton thus extols in a letter the superb volumes of the place but describes the freezing cold in winter in some rooms! However, there is no shortage of income. Maurice Denis, somewhat forgotten by the general French public today, was a real star at the time. A “Christian” painter, but also a theoretician of the Nabis group (whose most famous representatives are currently Gauguin and Bonnard), critic and art historian, Maurice Denis also creates multiple sets and stained glass windows for mansions, churches, etc. Wealthy collectors order works from him in advance, which allow the maintenance of the “Priory” and also the purchase of a holiday residence, in Perros-Guirec in Brittany.
It was not until 1976 that the Denis family finally decided to sell the place to the Yvelines departmental council. Maurice Denis died 33 years earlier… run over in Paris by a truck while crossing Boulevard Saint-Michel in 1943. Most of his works, still present in the Priory, have already been bequeathed to the department in the early 1970s.
The Maurice Denis museum opened its doors in 1980. “It’s an extraordinary place, enthusiastically affirms Fabienne Stahl, a specialist in Maurice Denis. It exerts a real power of attraction on people ”. numerous donations and acquisitions of symbolist works and nabis, among others Sérusier, Bonnard, Ranson, Vuillard, have since come to enrich the museum’s collection. The chapel of the old hospital, entirely decorated by the artist, constitutes another treasure of the place.
After major upgrading work, the Museum, and its vast collection of paintings, will reopen its doors in September 2021, on the occasion of Heritage Days.