At an unknown date late in his career, Simon Denis grouped his oil studies by theme, such as water, flora, rocks and caves, and panoramas. He then numbered them sequentially, to at least 160 (see Lacambre 2011). The present work is one of at least thirty-seven studies, numbered 38 through 74, whose primary feature is the sky. Denis’s approach to the limitless variety of atmospheric conditions entailed close attention to the formal role of the terrain: on at least one occasion, he painted a clear sky while devoting considerable attention to topography (MMA 2003.42.20; Lacambre 2011, no. 66), but on another he painted a sunset that includes no ground at all (sale, Christie’s, Paris, March 17, 2005, no. 425, ill.; Lacambre 2011, no. 53). Despite its horizontal orientation, which is emphasized by the minimal strip of ground at the lowest register, this sketch owes its verticality to the range of climatic conditions stacked one above another that lighten progressively from the rainstorm at lower left to the clear sky at top. To record these fleeting effects, Denis painted quickly, without the benefit of a preliminary drawing.
The verso of the sheet on which this study is painted is inscribed "a Rome" but it is just as likely to have been painted in the Campagna, the largely featureless area surrounding the city—where Denis lived from about 1786 until 1806. Denis may have been painted it in his early years there, as a comparable treatment of a rainstorm is found integrated into a larger, more extensive view of Salerno that is signed and dated 1793 (oil on canvas, 20 x 24 5/8 in. [50.8 x 62.5 cm], sale, Sotheby’s, New York, January 26, 2012, no. 247, as "Southern Landscape," misdated 1795; for two other versions of the painting, see Branchini 2002–3, nos. 13, 14, and 16).
Other sky studies by Denis in the Museum’s collection include Cloud Study (Early Evening) (2003.42.18; Lacambre 2011, no. 45), Landscape near Rome during a Storm (2009.400.41; Ref. Lacambre, no. 43), and Sunset, Rome (2009.400.43; Lacambre 2011, no. 54).
[2013; adapted from Miller 2013]