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The Cover
April 7, 1999

Easter Mystery

JAMA. 1999;281(13):1153. doi:10.1001/jama.281.13.1153

Maurice Denis (1870-1934) was not yet 20 and still a student at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian in Paris when he threw down the gauntlet before not only his professors, but before all those—including the old Impressionists—who espoused "Naturalism" in art. With considerable bravado (but not, apparently, with enough courage to use his real name—he signed himself "Pierre Louis"), Denis published an article in the August 1890 issue of Art and Criticism entitled "A Definition of Neo-Traditionism." Its opening sentence became the battle cry for a group of young, fin de siècle artists who called themselves the Nabis (from the Hebrew word for "prophet"). "Remember," wrote Denis alias Pierre Louis, "that a painting—before it is a battlehorse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order." Subject matter was thus declared unimportant or, at least, no longer of primary importance; the painting itself was the primary object. Paradoxically, this was not advice Denis himself would always follow, but the "manifesto" became a rallying cry not only for the Nabis but for the entire Symbolist art movement that would follow Impressionism. Sometimes, for want of a better term, the movement is called Post-Impressionism, but Symbolism is the better term, describing more accurately the highly fertile and progressive period that bridged the Impressionism of the late 19th century and the Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque work of the early 20th century.

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