A Painting a Day: Denis' The Muses (1893)

A painting of the day to start off the week: Maurice Denis' The Muses (1893). Denis was a member of the late 19th century artistic movement The Nabis (Prophets), a group of Symbolist painters who wanted to go beyond mere images of nature to show the inner "nature" of man. After all, art doesn't have to merely record impressions of the world around us, it can be whatever we want it to be, taking those impressions and mixing them with our inner sensations and even random thoughts from other worlds. While Denis' work isn't necessarily expressionist or bizarre, it does have a cooly detached, enigmatic view of the world which makes it highly decorative and somewhat mysterious.

This is definitely the case with The Muses, which ostensibly depicts the Nine Muses of antiquity. Yet this is not immediately recognizable, since the women seated in the foreground do not look like Muses at all but typical late 19th century society ladies. The most prominent of the trio is filing her nails (do Muses file their nails?!), with a look of bored concentration. Beside her is a more Muse-like woman in an ethereal pose, baring her back and shoulder for the viewer. Her face is a mere abstraction, just enough to stylistically suggest a kind of aristocratic ennui or immortal indifference. A third woman is caught in the act of reading--or more accurately, of losing interest in reading--and looks off into the distance, with the same deathless stare. Her hair and her dress have coalesced into a single color, a mere blob of shape. All three women look curiously like decorations more than women, each one an art nouveau print.

The forest the Muses find themselves in is also less Impressionistic as artistic and stylized: it's like a funky wallpaper print, lacking depth and reality, but all the more seductive for that. The other Muses amble about in the grove, strutting and posturing, but all of them in a daze. The one on the far left looks over at her companion blankly, as if to say "anything new going on this century?" Other women examine a book, and one seems to be completely naked toward the horizon. Yet each one is detached, a world unto themselves, utterly alone in their immortality.

Of course, maybe the title is ironic: maybe class and wealth have made these women "immortal"? They have become isolated by their status and forced into a cage of privilege, where they can only read about the world--not experience it. They have become, like the figures on Keats' Grecian Urn, trapped as lifeless art, more to inspire others than to enjoy life themselves. To quote Keats' poem, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." I get the sense that these women would like to know more, but have forgotten how to ask...