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Study of Clouds with a Sunset near Rome
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This image is available for download, without charge, under the Getty's Open Content Program.

Simon Alexandre-Clément Denis
Flemish, 1786 - 1801
Oil on paper
13 5/16 x 15 1/4 in.
2005.31

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Dark, swirling clouds loom over a narrow strip of land, gently punctuated by far-off trees and a city skyline. The place is Rome. The weather: an impending rainstorm. The day: a late afternoon within the last decades of the 1700s.

This painting is one in a series of cloud studies--in fact the 48th--that Simon Denis made to hone his observational and painting skills. Denis' confident paint handling and sensitive rendering of light capture the awe-inspiring power of nature. Using a warm palette, he juxtaposed light and dark tones to imply both the clouds' airy buoyancy and moisture-laden heaviness. Lively brushstrokes convey the constantly shifting forces of wind and light.

This dramatic cloudscape predates by a century the Impressionists' celebration of outdoor landscape painting in which they recorded specific, yet fleeting, effects of weather and time and exhibited those results as finished paintings. But in Denis' time, oil sketching on paper while outdoors offered the artist an opportunity to test and sharpen his skills. Denis would have kept his cloud studies in the studio for future reference for his finished paintings.