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Graduate Summer 2020: Claire Heidenreich

Apparition and Abstraction: Maurice Denis’ Visionary Catholicism

Department of Art History

Apparition and Abstraction: Maurice Denis’ Visionary Catholicism

My dissertation is a revisionist history of the religious art of Maurice Denis (1870-1943), exploring how his work helps to rewrite narratives of the avant-garde in France. Although the arc of modernism typically pairs Catholicism with conservatism, Denis’ corpus shows that in the religiously fraught 1890s, avant-gardism and Christian art were not mutually exclusive. Through examining the resurgence of miraculous visions in the nineteenth century, I demonstrate how Denis utilized these events in his work as he attempted to bridge the divide between popular piety and modernity. Focusing on his activities from 1888 to 1898, I articulate the ways in which Denis reacted to religious events and tried to change the visual language of Catholicism, while also experimenting with abstraction. Although these paintings are now regarded as traditional religious scenes, I argue that they are more productively read as portrayals of modern miraculous visions. This dissertation also adds to a nascent branch of modernist studies that attempts to reclaim religion’s key role in the avant-garde, while simultaneously offering a more complex view of life and religion in the late nineteenth century.