The Anunciation at Fiesole
Oil on cardboard laid down on panel
38 x 53 cm
Provenance : Most probably sold by the artist to Ambroise Vollard (February 1900, CDV no. 293 sold as part of a lot); Madeleine de Galea (1874-1956); private collection, France
Exhibition: Maurice Denis, huiles- Dessins-Pastels-Sanguines (1870-1943), Galerie de La Cave, Paris, 17 March -26 May 1981, no. 15 in the exhibition.
Bibliography: Will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the work of Maurice Denis by Claire Denis and Fabienne Stahl.
From 18 November 1897 to 22 January 1898, Maurice Denis, his wife Marthe and their daughter Noëlle—then 19 months old—were invited to stay at the Villa Papiniano in Fiesole, in the hills above Florence, rented by his friend the composer, Ernest Chausson (1855-1899).
Denis was immediately filled with enthusiasm for the beauty of the place and several days after their arrival, wrote to his friend Edouard Vuillard, “What a country! Imagine this house, or rather this palace belonging to old man Bandinelli perched on terraces of flowers, surrounded by olive trees, halfway up the hillside from Fiesole where white, yellow and pink houses are laid out in tiers; and at our feet, Florence in the blues of mornings and evenings, with, in the distance, the supple, languorous Tuscany hills as far as the eye can see. An extraordinary variety in the countryside: I walk there (…) I see things there… all the landscapes of the Primitives, the incredible cypresses, the geometrical rocks, the ash-green rows of olive trees” (Letter dated 23 November 1897, cited in M. Denis, Journal, T. I, p. 123-124).
Our Annunciation takes place not, as was frequently the case, in an architectural décor, but on the terrace of this Tuscan villa, recognizable in photographs taken by the painter, with pots of flowers lined up along the balustrade, geometrically planted flowerbeds, the date palm, and the cypresses below.
The annunciation is the subject most often represented in the work of Maurice Denis, who did no fewer than 40 works based on this biblical theme. Our sketch seems to be the first in the artist’s career, undoubtedly because his wife Marthe became pregnant during their stay in Fiesole.
As always, Denis personalized the faces in his work, giving the Virgin the features and blue eyes and black hair of Annie Chausson (1885-1965), one of the composer’s daughters. Denis used her again as a model for one of the angel-musicians framing the Assumption of the Chapel of the Virgin in the Church of Saint Marguerite in Le Vésinet in 1901.
The reference to the painter Fra Angelico, Dominican monk of the Quattrocento, known to his contemporaries as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, is obvious here.
The artist, who could see the San Marco convent—here silhouetted against the background—from his windows, had always admired the Florentine artist, and his vocation as a Christian painter was also linked to the art de Fra Angelico (see M. Denis, Théories 1890-1910 and Maurice Denis, Notes sur la peinture religieuse, L’Art et la Vie, Octobre 1896). In particular, among the works that belonged to the Chausson family, there is “a copy of Angelico, The Annunciation, with a dedication, “To Annie Chausson, Florence 98 Maurice Denis,” as well as a Portrait de Madame Chausson, after Angelico (see Thérèse Barruel, Maurice Denis et Ernest Chausson. Correspondance inédite et catalogue des œuvres de Denis ayant appartenu à Chausson, in Revue de l’Art, 1992, no. 98, p. 75 and 76).
A Mystery of the Catholic church originally, the subject is reused and amplified: here we have an angel-priest, in liturgical dress and assisted by two choir boys, announcing the Incarnation to the Virgin, showing her the book of the holy Word. The lily has become the “‘palm of justice,’ (…) and instead of a book—traditional sign of her belief in the Bible, Marie is holding a virginal bouquet (…). The figures, dressed in robes that are indistinct in the light, are anchored and modernized by the bright red of the shoes and the lower part of the cassocks.”
The painting, sold to Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) in February 1900, is part of a group of works that, in 1911, the art dealer left to his mistress, Madeleine de Galéa (1874-1956), like him, a native of La Réunion. At Vollard’s death, Madeleine de Galea inherited more than 2,000 works, among them this Annunciation by Maurice Denis.