Henri Joseph Harpignies (1819 - 1916)
[Harpignies] is a master of form, and has long been a force in the development of landscape painting, and much of what is best in it now is traceable to his influence, especially in regard to drawing and composition.
-William A. Coffin, The Century, 1898, pg. 395
Henri-Joseph Harpignies’ life extended beyond the span of many artistic movements in France. During his youth the Barbizon painters were challenging the classical landscape tradition and forcing the public to recognize that landscape painting should be appreciated as an art equal to that of historical or mythological painting. During the latter half of his life the movement of Realism was still exerting its hold over artists, influenced by the social situations of the day, and Impressionism and later Post-Impressionism began their own search for new representations of landscape and its effects. While Harpignies began his public career rather late in life, comparatively speaking, he clearly was most affected by the earlier interests espoused by the landscape painters of the first half of the nineteenth century, mostly Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Harpignies lived through a number of changing styles but remained steadfast in his appreciation of landscape painting and especially views of Italy of which he wrote that “It was Rome which found, created, sustained me-and which sustains me still; it is to Rome that I owe not only my most noble emotions by my finest inspirations. That is what should be said above everything, that all who desire to learn can go there and face to face with beauty realize how enchanting it is.” (quoted in Lorinda Munson Bryant’s French Picture and Their Painters, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1923, pg. 183) With its classical connotations, Rome became the primary source of inspiration for Harpignies who became a master landscape painter in the tradition of Corot.
Henri-Joseph Harpignies was born July 24, 1819 in Valenciennes. His parents were of Belgian origin and came to France and established a sugar beet factory in Famars around 1825, working in this as well as a number of other jobs. The first years of his life were spent alongside his father, mother, and also his uncle, in the middle of a bourgeois lifestyle which had been cultivated by his father’s many commercial exploits. It was also here that he gained an appreciation for nature, writing, “Already nature pleased me, the sun and the beautiful days made me happy. I often sketched on paper trying to reproduce what I saw.” (Henri Harpignies: 1819-1916, ex. cat., Valenciennes : Musée des Beaux-arts, 1970, pg. 12)
The Revolution of 1848 broke out shortly after Harpignies’ relocation to Paris. To escape the tumultuous events that were plaguing the city, he fled to Famars where his family remained and the next year began traveling with his teacher Achard to Brussels, Belgium, where they stayed for a year. But Harpignies wrote disparagingly that “the beer every night was bad business for painting (Henri Harpignies, pg. 22). Tired of Belgium, his father allowed him to go to Baden-Baden Germany, a region with rich landscapes. Still, Harpignies’ time in Germany did not bring him great satisfaction. Instead, under the advice of many, he left for Rome in November of 1850, following his tenet that “All if for art, all for the beautiful…” (Harpignies, pg. 23) In a direct statement to the other French artists working in other styles who rejected the associations that Italy had with the classical tradition of the Salon, Harpignies wrote (quoted in Bailly-Herzberg, Janine, L’Art du Paysage de l’Atelier au Plein Air, Paris: Flammarion, 2000, pg. 176):
Ah, makers of pigs’ ponds and of boatmen, intransigent realists, painters of the banks of the Marne and of the Oise and other trite everyday subjects, come and see the valley of Poussin… there you will see real landscapes.
Harpignies was clearly not following in the footsteps of his contemporaries, many of whom were committed to rural landscapes populated with animals, or with gritty realistic themes from the everyday scenes of Parisian life. He was not to be associated with either the Barbizon or Fontainebleau school, saying “No! No! No!, It’s Rome that marked me above all.” (Harpignies, pg. 27) He sought the idyllic offered to him by landscape painting reminiscent of earlier masters such as Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine.
After Rome, Harpignies left for Naples, originally meant to be a six day trip, but which turned into a six month residency. He traveled to Capri where he found the “enchantment of enchantments” (Harpignies, pg. 27), and also saw Mount Vesuvius, of which he executed a number of paintings. After spending time in Naples and its environs, he returned to Rome and remained there through the winter of 1851 and into 1852. He never stopped saying that “I would stay here my entire life if my father had not called for my return.” (Harpignies, 27)
Returning to Famars, then Paris, in the spring of 1852, Harpignies debuted at the Salon of 1853, when he was thirty-four years old, with three paintings, of which Vue Prise dans l’Île de Capri, Golfe de Naples (View From the Island of Capri, Gulf of Naples) was one. During the next year the itinerant artist traveled once again, this time to Marly, the Forest of Fontainebleau, and the Pyrénées, among many other locations. While he spent a significant amount of time in and around the Forest of Fontainebleau, where the Barbizon School flourished during the earlier decades, he was very loosely associated with the Barbizon artists, finding the greatest inspiration in the work of Corot. Harpignies showed an affinity with nature and took a special interest in the rendering of trees to such a point that Anatole France, a great writer of the period, named him the Michelangelo of trees.
Harpignies’ interest in landscapes and especially views of Italy continued unabated and he returned once again - to this country - in 1863 and remained there until 1865, during which time he met Corot whose work he became very fond of and whom he would follow throughout his entire life. Harpignies wrote that (quoted in Bailly-Herzberg, pg. 177):
It’s there [in Italy, where he lived “in a perpetual ecstasy”] that I finally understood it, it was my guide during all of my career. If father Corot could read me, he would be very happy, since he was always Italian, the greatest landscape painter of modern times.
Working in Italy was in the grand tradition of historical landscape painting, admired by Salon juries. Thus it is curious to note that one of Harpignies’ paintings was rejected at the Salon of 1863. While this was one of the last harsh and selective juries, Harpignies work and theme did not challenge many preconceived notions of what landscape painting should be. This demonstrated the level of exclusion of the dismissive Salon juries. Harpignies was so distraught that he destroyed the rejected painting and fled to Italy to assuage his feelings of rejection.
For Mr. Harpignies, it is too clear that he is content to nature’s perceived impressions. The impression completely true,, I don’t mind admitting it, but it is only an indication of a painting to be finished and not a completed painting. Let us add that the impressions of Mr. Harpignies…have, without doubt, much merit. However,…he so simplifies the difficulties that this merit is used almost is almost wasted.