Fortified Wall, Italy

Simon Denis (Flemish, Antwerp 1755–1813 Naples)
ca. 1786–1806
Oil on paper, laid down on wood
13 1/8 x 15 7/8 in. (33.3 x 40.3 cm)
Credit Line:
The Whitney Collection, Promised Gift of Wheelock Whitney III, and Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles S. McVeigh, by exchange, 2003
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 805
The walls depicted here are thought to date to antiquity and, together with the terrain, suggest the vicinity of Rome. The directness of observation and the fact that it was painted largely wet-into-wet indicate that this work was the product of a single plein-air outing. Although the site remains unidentified, it also appears in another oil study in the Museum’s collection, one attributed to Pierre Henri de Valenciennes or a painter in his circle (2009.400.112).
This study surfaced at auction as a work by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes in the same year as a groundbreaking monographic exhibition held at the Louvre; Louis Gauffier was subsequently considered a possible candidate for authorship. As more works by Simon Denis came to light, however, Whitney recognized that the facture is entirely consonant with documented sketches by the artist, including the distinctive lively and loaded brushwork and the treatment of the hills (see, for example, The Met, 2003.42.23).

The site depicted has proven more elusive. Rome’s Aurelian walls do not come quite so close to the hills arrayed to the east of the city, and no such walls have been identified at towns with similar settings, including Tivoli and Subiaco—frequent artists’ destinations. Compounding the mystery is another sketch depicting the same view from a slightly different position, which gives the impression of having been painted simultaneously with the present work, although by another artist, one who remains to be positively identified (The Met, 2009.400.112).

[Asher Ethan Miller 2013]
private collection (sale, Christie's, London, July 30, 1976, no. 93, as "An Italian Landscape in Central Italy," by Valenciennes, to Whitney); Wheelock Whitney III, New York (from 1976)
Paris. Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. "Paysages d'Italie: Les peintres du plein air (1780–1830)," April 3–July 9, 2001, no. 86 (as "Paysage avec des remparts médiévaux," lent by Wheelock Whitney, New York).

Mantua. Palazzo Te. "Un paese incantato: Italia dipinta da Thomas Jones a Corot," September 3–December 9, 2001, no. 86 (as "Paesaggio con mura medievali," lent by Wheelock Whitney, New York).

Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. "The Romantic Prospect: Plein Air Painters, 1780–1850," June 22–August 15, 2004, no. 8 (as "Fortified wall, Italy").

Sydney. Art Gallery of New South Wales. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," September 4–October 31, 2004, no. 8.

Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria. "Plein-air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850," November 19, 2004–January 16, 2005, no. 8.

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. 4).

Lydia Harambourg. "Paysages d'Italie, les peintres du plein air, 1780–1830." Gazette de l'Hôtel Drouot no. 17 (April 2001), p. 23, ill. (color), calls it "Paysage avec ramparts médiévaux" belonging to a private collection, and comments that the studies by Simon Denis in the exhibition "Paysages d'Italie" are the revelation of the show.

Vincent Pomarède. "Les enjeux d'une exposition." Dossier de l'art no. 76 (May 2001), p. 10, ill. (color).

Anna Ottani Cavina. Paysages d'Italie: Les peintres du plein air (1780–1830). Exh. cat., Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais. Paris, 2001, pp. 129, 133, no. 86, ill. (color) [Italian ed., "Un paese incantato: Italia dipinta da Thomas Jones a Corot," Paris, 2001, pp. 129, 133, ill.(color)], remarks on problems of its attribution and identification of subject; notes that a work then attributed to Valenciennes, "Mura di città accanto a una montagna" (now MMA 2009.400.112), depicts the same site at the same time of day.

Valentina Branchini. "Simon Denis (1755–1813) in Italia: Dipinti e Disegni di Paesaggio." PhD diss., Università di Bologna, 2002–3, pp. 118, 123, no. 56, ill., calls it "Paesaggio con mura medievali".

Papiers d'Italie, 1780–1850. Exh. cat., Galerie René-François Teissèdre, Paris Galerie René-François Teissèdre. Paris, 2003, unpaginated.

Charlotte Gere in Plein-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1850. Exh. cat., Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art. Shizuoka, 2004, p. 44, no. 8, ill. (color), asserts that comparison of this work to a sketch of the same scene attributed to Valenciennes [see Ref. Cavini 2001] "strongly suggests that the two studies are not by the same hand" but implies that they depict an actual location; speculates that the "mist or spume" behind the trees may indicate the presence of a waterfall, affording a possible clue to identifying the site.

Esther Bell. "Catalogue Raisonné of the Thaw Collection." Studying Nature: Oil Sketches from the Thaw Collection. Ed. Jennifer Tonkovich. New York, 2011, p. 146 under no. 133, calls it "Fortified Wall, Italy".

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. 6, 45, fig. 4 (color).

The sheet of paper on which this study was painted was laid down on a wood panel without any inscription that may appear on its verso having been recorded; if present, its significance evidently went unrecognized.