The Belgian painter Simon Denis trained initially in Antwerp under H.-J. Antonissen, a painter of landscapes and animals.1 In the course of the 1780s, Denis moved to Paris, where he enjoyed the patronage of the genre painter and art dealer Jean Baptiste Lebrun. With Lebrun’s support, Denis moved to Rome in 1786 and the following year attracted the notice of an art critic, who wrote a long piece about him for the Rome-based Giornale per le Belle Arti. Singled out for praise in that article were Denis’s acute powers of observation and above all his mastery of light. Besides associating with fellow Flemish artists living in Rome at the time – in 1789 he became a member of the Fondation royale belge St.-Julien-des-Flamands – Denis was also eager to learn from the French artists working there. When he visited Tivoli in 1789, therefore, he did so in the company of the highly regarded French portrait painter, Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun, and the director of the Roman Academie française, François Ménageot.2
The high esteem in which Denis was held as an artist, as evidenced by his admission to the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1803 and his appointment as painter to the court of Joseph Bonaparte, from 1806 King of Naples,3 is also borne out in an 1805 letter from Schlegel to Goethe, which hails him as one of the best landscape painters in Rome.4 His works, most of them idealized views of Rome, the Campagna, and the Bay of Naples, bear an affinity with those of French contemporaries such as Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld and Jean-Victor Bertin.
Denis’s exceptionally fresh and colourful landscape studies are all the more astonishing bearing in mind the period in which they were painted, when the French Revolution was at its height and Jacques-Louis David was celebrating his greatest triumphs. Denis’s comtemporary, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, had been similarly unable to resist the pull of Italy, but was back in Paris by the time Denis arrived in Rome. Denis chanced upon the motif for our study only after leaving the Eternal City itself to explore the Sabine Hills, here beautifully observed and executed with painstaking attention to detail. What strikes us first is the polarizing light and the areas of dark shade suggestive of a low sun somewhere off to the right. The terrain that slopes away steeply into the middle ground is rendered in bright green hues, highlighted to great effect by yellow-flowering vegetation. Facing away from the sun, the precipitous, monolithic mountains, densely forested all the way up to the top, derive their visual potency from the many different shades of dark green. Here, too, Denis put the emphasis on the impact of colour. The impression made by the massif is further enhanced by the ethereal blue of the mountains in the far distance. The pentimenti on the hill on the right show that topographical accuracy mattered a lot to the artist. Another work by him that bears a strong resemblance to this study shows the same peak with its distinctive, left-leaning crest, but this time in the centre of the composition and from a closer and lower vantage point.5
There are works by Simon Denis in the Louvre and in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Hendrik-Jozef Antonissen (9 June 1737 in Antwerp; 4 April 1794).↩
Exh. cat. In the Light of Italy. Corot and Early Open-Air Painting, National Gallery of Art Washington 1996, New Haven 1996, p. 145.↩
Joseph Bonaparte (7 January 1768 – 28 July 1844), Napoleon Bonaparte’s oldest brother, was King of Naples from 1806–1808 and King of Spain from 1808–1813.↩
Thieme, Ulrich and Becker, Felix (eds.), Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künste von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Leipzig 1912, Vol. IX, p. 72.↩
Simon-Joseph-Alexandre-Clément Denis, View of the Sabine Hills, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 38.5 x 25.5 cm, labelled: inv. no. C58 (bottom right in red), Sotheby’s New York, 13./14.06.2007, Lot No. 117. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2007/fine-art-old-mastersto-contemporary-n08333/lot.117.html↩