By the late 1880s, the French landscape painter Henri Harpignies (1819–1916) was well into his sixties, and still painting very actively. He’d started with realism, been on the periphery of the Barbizon School, had been a close friend of Camille Corot until the latter’s death in 1875, and was now seeing Impressionism giving way to the latest Neo- and Post-Impressionist styles. He just kept painting away, en plein air and in the studio, in his own way and style.
From about 1885, Harpignies migrated south for each winter, spending his time in the more comfortable climate on the Côte d’Azur.
This marvellous photo taken between about 1885-90 shows Henri Harpignies in his Paris studio, playing his cello rather than working on one of the many landscapes seen there. He was to continue painting for more than twenty-five years after this photo was taken!
The Railway Bridge at Briare (1888) had been a favourite theme among the Impressionists, but not at one of their popular sites along the River Seine near Paris. Harpignies found this rather non-descript bridge in the quiet country town of Briare, well to the south of Paris and near his retreat at Saint-Privé, far beyond the stamping ground of other artists.
Harpignies had a reputation as the finest painter of trees of his time, and looking at this studio painting of Evening at Saint-Privé from 1890 I can see why. One reason that his trees appear so real and alive is his deep understanding of their anatomy, and of the subtle differences between species.
His paintings of ancient trees, like The Old Oak from 1895, convey their character.
In 1900, Harpignies was awarded the Grand Prix at the Exposition Universelle in Paris for his collection of oil and watercolour landscapes exhibited there.
The trees in his Landscape at Dusk from 1902 show his affinity with Corot’s distinctive style.
As late as 1913, when he turned 94, he produced this brilliant chalk and wash sketch Study of Trees, complete with its plein air artists at work under the boughs.
But that was the last year in which Harpignies submitted work to the Salon. His failing eyesight then prevented him from painting much, although he is said to have continued painting until his death on 28 August 1916, by which time he was almost blind and had reached the grand age of 97.
I have some remaining undated paintings of his which I hope you will also enjoy.
Wash Day is a fine plein air oil sketch of a small group of women washing clothes by a small waterside village.
If you’ve visited Rome, The Roman Forum is a view with which you should be familiar, and is one of his more detailed oil sketches, made during one of his several visits to the city.
Throughout his career, Harpignies did a steady trade in watercolour views, such as this of Le Pont du Carrousel on the Seine, which he had painted previously in his more unusual view of 1870.
Priest in a Park is a pen and wash sketch which reminds me of the original plein air sketches made by the early landscape masters like Poussin and Claude.
Finally, what I think is his finest painting, this breathtaking watercolour View of the Seine at Rouen, which I believe shows the view from Bonsecours, to the south-east of the city, looking north-west into the summer sunset.
Henri Harpignies may not have been much of an experimental landscape painter, but so many of his paintings capture the essence of their locations, from peaceful pastures to that most memorable view over the mediaeval city of Rouen. What better to celebrate his bicentenary.