At the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Simon Denis had a European-wide reputation as a painter of landscapes in Italy, where he lived from 1786 to his death in 1812. His reputation declined after his demise and has only recently been rehabilitated, as a number of his works have appeared on the art market in the last ten years. A 1992 auction in Monaco, for example, offered paintings and drawings from his studio that had come by descent through the artist's family. Denis was born in Antwerp, where he trained with the local landscape and animal painter Henri Antonissen. In 1775 he moved to Paris, where he worked and studied under the patronage of the painter and art dealer Jean-Baptiste Lebrun. In 1786 Lebrun encouraged Denis to visit Rome, where he settled, married a Roman woman, and established his successful career as a painter of landscapes. He painted idealized landscapes in the tradition of Claude Lorrain, topographical views, and sketches executed in the open air. He was elected to the Accademia di San Luca in Rome in 1803. He was appointed court painter to Joachim Murat, king of Naples, in 1808, and spent the rest of his life based in Naples.
The French painter François-Marius Granet recalled in his memoirs that, when he arrived as a young artist in Rome in 1802, Denis advised him that he could profit by following his example and painting small landscapes in and around the city. Denis would certainly have encouraged Granet to paint open-air oil sketches, and ample evidence in their many surviving studies in oil on paper shows that both artists made this a regular activity. They were following the precepts and practice of their contemporary Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, a seminal figure in the history of open-air painting.
View near Naples is typical of Denis' oil studies made from nature: the delicacy and the lively variety of the painter's touch, the feeling of fresh observation, and his sensitivity to the nuances of outdoor light. Denis' point of view, characteristically unusual and decidedly not "picturesque," looks forward to the informality of photography. It is not without humor that he pushed the peaks of Vesuvius into the far left background, playing down one of the most famous tourist sites in southern Italy in favor of some nondescript farm buildings and a local working landscape. The place appears to be near the agricultural village of Gragnano, inland from Castellammare to the south of Naples. This fertile and wooded area was much frequented by Neapolitans, who came to avoid the summer's heat of the crowded city. Denis very likely worked there in or after his permanent move to Naples in 1806.
(Text by Philip Conisbee, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
Private collection, France; (sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 20 December 1996, no. 136); (James MacKinnon, London); purchased 17 February 1998 by NGA.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Paysages d'Italie: Les peintres du plein air (1780-1830), Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; Centro Internazionale d'Arte e di Cultura di Palazzo Te, Mantua, 2001, no. 87, repro.
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