This work straddles the boundary between an informal study and a finished painting. Aerial perspective, the combined effect of light and atmosphere, is seen here as the veil of haze that softens details near the horizon. Similar paintings by Denis’s elder contemporaries were becoming increasingly popular in Paris at the time Denis lived there, from 1775 until his move to Rome about 1786.
This painting depicts the broad plain that stretches from Tivoli west toward Rome, as seen from the gardens of the Villa d’Este. Consistent with the anecdotal character of the staffage, there are minor deviations from topographical accuracy in matters of detail that include the terrace in the foreground, the doubling in number of the four arches of the Ponte Lucano that span the river Aniene in the near distance, the cursory depiction of the Tomba dei Plauzi and other structures at the bridge’s western terminus, as well as the single hill at right. The artist’s chief preoccupation in this painting, which blurs the boundary between an informal study and a finished painting, is aerial perspective—the combined effect of light and atmosphere to soften distant details, enhancing the illusion of spatial recession.
This painting is of a type popularized in the last decades of the eighteenth century by artists such as Louis Gabriel Moreau, called Moreau the Elder (1739–1805), and Hubert Robert (1733–1808), which is exemplified by Robert’s An Extensive Landscape near Paris, 1781 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, inv. 177.1995; see Alan P. Wintermute in Claude to Corot: The Development of Landscape Painting in France, exh. cat., Colnaghi, New York, pp. 215–17, no. 45, ill. [color]). Denis saw works like the Robert in Paris, where he lived for a decade from 1775 until he moved to Rome, probably in 1786. The attribution of the present work to Denis by Whitney is based on the sense of color and the way it is expressed in the brushwork, which are consistent in every way with oil studies that the artist painted in Italy now in the Museum’s collection.
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
[Jacques Fischer-Chantal Kiener, Paris, until 1978; sold in April to Whitney]; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1978)
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," May 26–September 2, 1996, no. 32 (calls it "Landscape near Rome" and attributes it Louis Gauffier; lent by a private collection, New York).
Brooklyn Museum. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," October 11, 1996–January 12, 1997, no. 32.
Saint Louis Art Museum. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," February 21–May 18, 1997, no. 32.
Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. "The Romantic Prospect: Plein Air Painters, 1780–1850," June 22–August 15, 2004, no. 10 (as "Extensive view in Italy").
Sydney. Art Gallery of New South Wales. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," September 4–October 31, 2004, no. 10.
Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," November 19, 2004–January 16, 2005, no. 10.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850," January 22–April 21, 2013, unnumbered cat. (fig. 15).
Jeremy Strick inIn the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1996, p. 144, no. 32, ill. (color), dates it to the 1790s; states that the two foreground figures are a use of staffage rare in the tradition of open-air oil studies; suggests that the Tiber is the river depicted.
Charlotte Gere inPlein-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850. Exh. cat., Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. Shizuoka, 2004, pp. 46–47, no. 10, ill. (color), contextualizes former attribution to Gauffier and presents case for attribution to Denis; dates it "1790s(?)".
Asher Ethan Miller. "The Path of Nature: French Paintings from the Wheelock Whitney Collection, 1785–1850." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 70 (Winter 2013), pp. 16–17, 45, fig. 15 (color) and frontispiece (color).
The potential significance of any inscriptions that may be on the verso of the primary support, which were effectively hidden when the paper was laid down onto canvas some time before it surfaced on the art market in 1978, evidently went unrecognized.