In 1887, after studying at the Lycée Condorcet, Maurice Denis enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he met Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, René Piot and Paul Sérusier, among others. Sérusier, just back from Pont-Aven, where he had followed the instruction of Paul Gauguin, encouraged his colleagues to synthesize shapes and use uniform areas of color. In 1890, Maurice Denis, the youngest of all these artists, wrote down these principles in an article, which was adopted as the Nabi manifesto. His painting, nourished by these precepts and influenced by Japanese art and the Italian Primitives, was characterized by a simplification of shapes in keeping with the principles of "Synthetism."
Maurice Denis was increasingly productive in the early 20th century. He took on large decorative projects, such as the ceiling and friezes for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1912. He also illustrated literary works, such as Dante’s La Vita Nuova. Finally, he worked on religious compositions, which he rendered with a modern spirit.
Alongside his work as a painter and illustrator, he published numerous theoretical essays (Théories, 1890-1910), as well as texts on art history dealing with religious art, Ingres, Symbolism, among other subjects.
Like Signac, Maurice Denis played a decisive role in the history of the Musée Eugène Delacroix. When Delacroix’s studio was faced with the threat of destruction, the two artists, both great admirers of the painter, decided to take action. Working with André Joubin, Raymond Escholier and the Doctor Viau, they created the Société des Amis de Delacroix in 1929. Maurice Denis was its first president and, until his accidental death in 1943, was one of the most active members.