back to overview

Simon Denis

* 1755 – † 1813

Blick auf die Sabiner Berge (View of the Sabine Hills)

Oil on paper mounted on canvas

Labelled on the frame: N 10

The Belgian painter Simon Denis received his first training as an artist from the landscape and animal painter H.-J. Antonissen in Antwerp.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.2 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 1789,3 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.4 The high esteem in which the painter Denis was held, as evidenced by his admission to Rome’s Accademia di San Luca in 1803 and his appointment as painter to the court of Joseph Bonaparte,5 from 1806 King of Naples, is also borne out in an 1805 letter from Schlegel to Goethe, which hails him as one of the best landscape painters in Rome.6 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.7
Denis found the motif for our remarkably fresh and colourful study while exploring Rome’s environs, specifically the Sabine Hills, here beautifully observed and executed with painstaking attention to detail. What strikes us first in this work is the polarizing light and areas of dark shade suggestive of a low sun somewhere off to the right. The foreground terrain that slopes away steeply is rendered in bright green hues, highlighted to great effect by yellow-flowering vegetation. The precipitous mountainsides facing away from the sun are densely forested and derive their visual potency from the many different shades of dark green. Here, too, Denis puts the emphasis on the impact of colour, just as the impression made by the massif is further enhanced by the ethereal blue of the mountains in the far distance. The pentimenti on the hilltop on the right show that topographical accuracy mattered a great deal to painter. There is a closely related variant of this study that centres the same peak with its distinctive, left-leaning crest, albeit from a closer, lower vantage point.8

  1. Hendrik-Jozef Antonissen (1737–1794).

  2. Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun (1748–1813).

  3. In the Light of Italy. Corot and Early Open-Air Painting, exh. cat. National Gallery of Art Washington 1996, New Haven 1996, p. 145.

  4. Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (1755–1842) and François-Guillaume Ménageot (1744–1816).

  5. Joseph Bonaparte (1768–1844) was the oldest brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and reigned as King of Naples from 1806–1808 and as King of Spain from 1808–1813.

  6. Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker (eds.), Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künste von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, Leipzig 1912, Vol. IX, p. 72.

  7. Jean-Joseph-Xavier Bidauld (1758–1846) and Jean-Victor Bertin (1767–1842).

  8. Simon-Joseph-Alexandre-Clément Denis, Blick zu den Sabiner Bergen, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 38.5 x 25.5 cm, labelled: (inv. no.) C58 (at bottom right in red); Sotheby’s New York, 13./14.6.2007, lot no. 117.

back to overview