For this rooftop view, Denis set up his easel on the upper story of a palazzo on Rome’s Quirinal Hill. His intention was not merely to depict the urban topography. Facing north by northwest, the view beckoned to be painted in the afternoon to take full advantage of the shadows that heighten the counterpoint between the curve in the cityscape and the dome of the sky. This simple record of a few hours’ work is arguably the most ambitious oil sketch by Denis that has come to light.
Rather unusually for Denis this study is dated, perhaps to single it out as one of his more ambitious plein-air oil sketches. He painted it from the upper story of a palazzo along the Salita del Grillo, a short street close by Trajan’s Forum, perhaps from a balcony. The view is frankly unassuming—the Quirinal Palace with the obelisk standing before it at far right and, immediately to their left, the two square towers of the Villa Medici are accorded no more prominence as points of arresting interest than any of the less famous buildings. Given his vantage point, Denis might have included a repoussoir to tidy up the foreground, lead the viewer’s eye into the picture, and establish scale. Instead, he left in place a few confidently and broadly sketched architectural elements, notably the volutes of the church of Santa Caterina da Siena.
The boldness of the strokes used to describe such details yields to increasing refinement as the eye glides along the subtle curve that begins in the left foreground and continues to right middle ground before doubling back parabolically toward the distant vista of hills. It was not solely the topography that Denis aimed to depict, however. Facing north by northwest, the view beckoned to be painted in the afternoon to take full advantage of the shadows that heighten the counterpoint between the curve in the cityscape and the dome of the sky. Indeed, the artist considered this to be a sky study: the key clue to this is the number inscribed on the reverse that situates it among other such studies (see Lacambre 2011).
The emergence of studies like this one makes it clear that fully a generation before Constable famously sketched the sky above Hampstead Heath, Denis demonstrated a similar ambition in Rome. Joseph Vernet, Pierre Henri de Valenciennes, and Thomas Jones had also favored rooftop views for their studies. This painting, like theirs, remains a study, benefiting as it does from the investigatory properties of a sketch and the more highly developed features of a finished picture. As a private exercise intended to satisfy personal aims, it could have been admired by Denis’s friends and associates, but lacking technical finish and a clear adherence either to the Picturesque or the Sublime, it did not meet the criteria for a complete work of art according to the standards of the day. View on the Quirinal Hill serves as an eloquent summation of the trends in landscape painting of the eighteenth century that would be carried forward into the nineteenth.
[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
Inscription: Signed, dated, inscribed, and numbered on verso (obscured by lining): Peint à Rome en 1800 – 66 – Sn Denis
[Jacques Fischer-Chantal Kiener, Paris, 1979; sold to Hazlitt]; [Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox, London, 1979; sold in October to Whitney]; Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1979)
London. Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox. "The Lure of Rome," October 31–November 27, 1979, no. 4 (as "View on the Quirinal Hill, Rome").
Cambridge. Fitzwilliam Museum. "Painting from Nature," November 25, 1980–January 11, 1981, no. 35 (lent by private collection).
London. Diploma Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts. "Painting from Nature," January 31–March 15, 1981, no. 35.
Munich. Neue Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen. "Johann Georg von Dillis (1759–1841) Landschaft und Menschenbild," November 29, 1991–February 9, 1992, no. A29.
Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Albertinum. "Johann Georg von Dillis (1759–1841) Landschaft und Menschenbild," March 1–May 3, 1992, no. A29.
Washington. National Gallery of Art. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," May 26–September 2, 1996, no. 33 (lent from 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. 33.
Saint Louis Art Museum. "In the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting," February 21–May 18, 1997, no. 33.
Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. "The Romantic Prospect: Plein Air Painters, 1780–1850," June 22–August 15, 2004, no. 6.
Sydney. Art Gallery of New South Wales. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," September 4–October 31, 2004, no. 6.
Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," November 19, 2004–January 16, 2005, no. 6.
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. 22).
The Lure of Rome. Exh. cat., Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox. London, 1979, p. 15, no. 4, pl. 5.
Philip Conisbee. Painting from Nature: The Tradition of Open-Air Oil Sketching from the 17th to 19th Centuries. Exh. cat.London, 1980, p. 27, no. 35, ill., identifies the Palazzo del Quirinale at right, and beyond it the top of the Villa Medici.
Christoph Heilmann inJohann Georg von Dillis (1759–1841) Landschaft und Menschenbild. Ed. Christoph Heilmann et al. Exh. cat., Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen München, Neue Pinakothek. Munich, 1991, pp. 30, 314, no. A29, fig. 31 (color).
Jeremy Strick inIn the Light of Italy: Corot and Early Open-air Painting. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1996, p. 146, no. 33, ill. (color), states that the view is toward the northeast.
Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Drawings and Oil Sketches. Exh. cat., Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox. London, 1998, unpaginated, under no. 37.
Valentina Branchini. "Simon Denis (1755–1813) in Italia: Dipinti e Disegni di Paesaggio." PhD diss., Università di Bologna, 2002–3, pp. 15, 118, 121, 162, no. 48, ill.
Gary Tinterow. "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 2002–2003." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 61 (Fall 2003), pp. 5, 30, ill. (color).
Charlotte Gere inPlein-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850. Exh. cat., Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. Shizuoka, 2004, pp. 40–42, no. 6, ill. (color), compares its subject matter and palette to studies by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes and Thomas Jones.
Asher Ethan Miller inMasterpieces of European Painting, 1800–1920, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2007, pp. 6, 247–48, no. 4, ill. (color).
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. 73–74, 79 n. 14, p. 81, no. 66, calls it "View on the Quirinal in Rome, with a Clear Sky" and deduces that the number 66 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. 20–22, 45, figs. 22 (color) and 23 (infrared reflectogram detail).