In a week’s time, we will celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of another important landscape painter from the nineteenth century: Henri-Joseph Harpignies (1819–1916). A close friend of Camille Corot, his career spanned all the major landscape movements and styles of the nineteenth century: he started out as a plain realist, became a member of the Barbizon School, then saw the rise of Impressionism and the development of post-Impressionist art, and was still painting when Picasso and Cubism took the world by storm before the First World War.
Harpignies was born on 28 June (although some say 24 July) 1819, in Valenciennes, in north-east France close to the border with Belgium, where his father was an entrepreneur and businessman. He showed little interest in academic subjects at school, but excelled at drawing. When he completed his schooling, he toured France for two months, then set about persuading his father to allow him to study art in Paris. This he started in 1846, when he became a pupil of Jean-Alexis Achard at the unusually late age of twenty-seven.
With the Revolution of 1848, Harpignies left Paris and travelled to Brussels and Baden-Baden in Germany. From there he went to Rome at the end of 1850, where he painted in the campagna just as Camille Corot had done twenty-five years earlier, before he moved on to Naples and visited the island of Capri. He eventually returned to France, and exhibited his first three landscape paintings in the Salon of 1852, by which time he was thirty-two. He continued to travel, and started to spend periods in and around the Forest of Fontainebleau, to the south-east of Paris, with the Barbizon artists.
When Harpignies was on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau, he painted largely en plein air, including this fine view of Fir Trees in Les Trembleaux, near Marlotte from 1854.
Harpignies had initially learned to paint in oils, but from 1851 also took to watercolour. He painted this dawn View of Moulins in watercolours between about 1850-60, close to the dead centre of France. This looks over the Allier River, past the line of washerwomen on its far bank, towards the spires and towers of the town.
Harpignies returned to Italy to paint between 1863-65, during which he made this unusually stark watercolour View of the Colosseum from the Basilica of Domitian and the Flavian Palace, Rome (1864). You’d hardly believe that this is in the centre of the city of Rome.
He still had a fondness for the gentle rolling meadows of the French countryside, as shown in this view of Saulce Estate, Drôme Department, painted in front of the motif in central southern France on a fine summer’s day in 1869.
Harpignies also travelled to some of the more rugged regions, where he painted The Rocky Path in the Morvan in 1869. This is to the west of the the Alps and to the north of Lyon, in what is now a large National Park. He includes three small figures as staffage.
This unusual view of the River Seine in Paris shows the predecessor of the current Pont du Carrousel, known originally as the Bridge of Saint-Pères, Paris (1870). The trees which provide repoussoir for this view of the river are almost overbearing but not quite. This first bridge was constructed from iron and wood in 1831-34, and replaced by the modern concrete version after 1935.
This must have been painted just a couple of months before the start of the Franco-Prussian War; a year later the Tuileries Palace near the Arc de Triomphe had been burned down during the Commune, and the city was badly scarred by that and other damage.
In the years after the war, Harpignies sought solace in the countryside, carefully mirroring this Farmhouse (1875) in its reflection. That year, his friend Camille Corot died in the February, but Harpignies was appointed to the Legion of Honour in recognition of his sustained success at the annual Salon.
In 1877, he returned to the Morvan, where he painted this more painterly view of Morning in the Nièvre. The following year, he bought a property at Saint-Privé, near the Loire Valley to the west of Morvan. He still maintained his studio in Paris, though.
This Landscape from 1880 shows a farmer walking across the bridge over a small weir deep in the French countryside.
Harpignies’ View of a Village from 1882 is another escape into the lush greens of well-watered meadows, although there are small glimpses of what might be a distant town through the gaps in the trees. A lone fisherman is peacefully working this stretch of the river.
His Angler from the following year is a rearrangement of those same essential elements, this time with added reflections.
Now into his sixties, Harpignies continued to paint well into the twentieth century, as I’ll show in the next and concluding article to celebrate his bicentenary, next week.