This study shows a range of climatic conditions stacked one above the other. It lightens progressively over a space that extends thousands of feet, from the rainstorm at lower left to the clear sky at top. Denis’s plein-air sketches epitomize the Enlightenment’s embrace of empirical research in the pursuit of knowledge. The artist employed the particular effect seen here in finished paintings of the 1790s, and perhaps earlier.
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; Lacambre 2011, no. 43), and Sunset, Rome (2009.400.43; Lacambre 2011, no. 54).
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
Inscription: Signed, inscribed, and numbered (in brown ink), verso: a Rome / S. Ds. / 49
[Jacques Fischer-Chantal Kiener, Paris, until late 1980s; sold to Whitney]; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from late 1980s)
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," May 26–September 2, 1996, no. 36 (as "Cloud Study in Rome," 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. 36.
Saint Louis Art Museum. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," February 21–May 18, 1997, no. 36.
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. 18).
Jeremy Strick inIn the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1996, pp. 148–49, no. 36, ill. (color, overall and detail), dates it about 1800; remarks that in this work, as in another "Cloud Study in Rome" (MMA 2003.42.18), Denis adopted Valenciennes's formula of including a narrow strip of ground at the bottom of the composition.
Valentina Branchini. "Simon Denis (1755–1813) in Italia: Dipinti e Disegni di Paesaggio." PhD diss., Università di Bologna, 2002–3, pp. 16, 118–19, no. 44, ill., calls it "Studio ni nuvole"; states that the interest in light and atmosphere expressed in works like this by Denis one is in keeping with numerous sketches by Valenciennes of the 1780s.
Geneviève Lacambre. "Two Series of Studies in Oil on Paper Numbered by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes and Simon Denis." Studying Nature: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection. Ed. Jennifer Tonkovich. New York, 2011, pp. 74, 81, no. 49, calls it "Cloud Study" and deduces that the number 49 on the verso situates it within the range of works similarly inscribed 38 through 74, whose primary motif is the sky.
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. 17, 20, 45, fig. 18 (color).