French School


Oil on canvas, signed 

14.8 x 32.2 cms

53/4 x 125/8 ins 

Overall framed size 24.9 x 42.7 cms

                                9¾ x 167/8 ins


A painter of landscapes in oil and watercolour, Harpignies was born in Valenciennes on 28th July 1819 to a family of Belgian descent. He was initially a travelling salesman for his family’s sugar beet factory but had always had a burning ambition to be an artist and had taken some basic lessons in drawing. Art eventually prevailed over commerce and at the age of twenty-seven, he took what his parents deemed the rash decision to follow his instinct and passion.

He took instruction from Jean-Alexis Achard (1807-1884), “…un charmant paysagiste” (Benezit) and friend of Jean Baptiste Camille Corot who, for the next two years, taught the aspirant painter the exacting discipline of draughtsmanship. Following his time in Achard’s atelier, Harpignies travelled with his teacher to Cremieu and Brussels but their journey was cut short in 1848 after the outbreak of revolutions across parts of Europe, sometimes called the Springtime of the Peoples, fueled by citizens seeking the forming of liberal democracies and end to monarchial structures. The uprisings lasted until 1849 when for the most part, reactionary forces regained control and the two artists resumed their journey, going first to southern Germany and then on to Italy.

This artistic expedition was particularly influential on his work where he was able to absorb the variance of light in north and south Europe and also experiment with watercolour. He had also taken a keen interest in the Barbizon school of painters which evolved in about 1830 and came about when a group of artists sought a return to realism in art as opposed to the Romantic Movement which held sway at that time.

In 1824, Le Salon de Paris had staged an exhibition of Constable’s paintings and his rural scenes, painted in a free and lively manner, made a significant impression on some young artists. This group, which included, Corot, Charles Francois Daubigny, Theodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon and Jules Dupre among others, gathered in and around the village of Barbizon on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau to the south-east of Paris. They favoured translating to canvas the landscapes of the area and scenes of peasant and rural life in distinctive tones with soft form and loose brushstrokes. The movement lasted until about 1870 but in the 1860s, it attracted the attention of a new group of artists which included Renoir, Sisley, Monet and van Gogh which in turn spawned Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

Harpignies, although never a pupil, was a great admirer of Corot above all the other Barbizon painters and his influence can be clearly discerned. Early on in his career, Harpignies concentrated on painting children in landscape settings and as his career developed, he began to imbue his works with his own personality while still displaying the fundamental tenet of the master of Ville d’Avray, as Corot is sometimes known.

La Gazette des Beaux-Arts noted in 1862 that Harpignies was an artist to be noted and that success was accruing for him.

In 1863, Harpignies returned to Italy although this time it was precipitated by certain events. His initial inspirational visit there had resulted in his first entry gaining acceptance at the Paris Salon in 1853: Vue de Capri. He secured his first great success in 1861 at the Salon with the well-received Lisière de bois sur les bords de l'Allier and as a consequence, he became a regular exhibitor thenceforwards. However, the 1863 Salon jury were not inclined to his style of painting and rejected three of his four entries including Wild Ducks. He was so offended by this decision that he destroyed the duck painting and the experience partly prompted him to make the Italian trip but he had also just married Marguerite Ventillard enabling them to journey together.

Returning to Paris with many completed paintings in 1865, he had a considerably more receptive audience and the Emperor Napoleon III purchased one of his paintings. He also garnered his first gold medal at the Salon for Le Soir dans la campagne de Rome in 1866, something that was repeated in 1868 and 1869. Other awards followed including Croix de Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1875, a silver medal at the Exposition Universelle in 1878, The Grande Médaille d'Honneur 1897, Le Grand Prix at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 and Croix de Commandeur in 1901. He was elected 1887 a member of the Société des Artistes Français in 1881.

Harpignies had a studio in Paris but travelled widely in France visiting such places as Nevers in north-east France, Fontainebleau, Allier in the Auvergne in the centre, particularly Herisson, down to the Pyrenees, seeking locations to paint. He also exhibited in locations outside Paris including at the New Watercolour Society in London, and to give him more time to travel, in 1883 he appointed the Paris dealership Arnold and Tripp to handle the sale of his paintings. He also taught at his studio and had numerous students with an emphasis on teaching his watercolour technique which had increasingly interested him in later years and was popular with the public.He created designs for the Senate and the Hôtel de Ville in Paris and the Paris Opéra commissioned him to produce some decorative stage sets and one of these, Vallée d'Egérie panel, he showed at the Salon in 1870. 

Harpignies’ success owed much to his own interpretation of the artistic movements which were sweeping France at the time. Although a keen adherent of the realist style, producing much of his work plein air, he struck a middle path between the factions and his depictions of landscapes were fresh views of nature with a more accessible free palette than some of his contemporaries. His ability to portray light and the way it was reflected off the surface of leaves, rocks and the earth defined the passing seasons and at different times of day and imbued his paintings with a poetic quality. There is an elegance to his compositions and by utilising blue glazes in the greys and blues in the painting a subtle and nuanced atmosphere is created. He was particularly drawn to depictions of moonlight and the way that shadows were so different from those in sunlight. The poet, journalist and novelist Anatole France (1844-1924) called him the “Michelangelo of trees”.

One of his favourite places to stay and to paint was in the Auvergne region and in particular the village of Hérisson where the river Aumance featured in many of his works. His attachment to the region caused him to join the Garde Nationale during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and he was stationed in Hérisson. He spent his summers there throughout the 1870s but in 1879, he bought a house in St Privé in Burgundy. His winters during the 1880s were spent in Antibes, Nice and along the Riviera which afforded different landscapes to paint.

He continued to exhibit at the Salon until 1912 and died at St Privé on 28th August 1916. His legacy, apart from the body of work that he left, was to be defined by critics as being to the Barbizon School as Jean Baptiste Guillaumin was to Impressionism.

Harpignies’ work is extensively represented in museums and institutions around the world and feature in: British Museum, National Gallery, Courtauld, Fitzwilliam, Walker Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Birmingham Museum, Leeds Art Gallery, Southampton City Art Gallery, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Holbourne Museum, Sheffield Museum, Grundy Art Gallery, Museum of Gloucester, Beccroft Art Gallery, National Gallery of Scotland, Glasgow Museum, University of Dundee Fine Art Collections, Perth Art Gallery, Aberdeen Art Gallery, Dublin Art Gallery, Louvre, Musée d’Orsay,  Orléans, Rochefort, Rouen, Valenciennes, La Roche-sur-Yon, Liège, Lille, Grenoble, Clamecy, Dieppe, Statens Museum Copenhagen, Teylers Museum Haarlem Netherlands, Museum of Fine Art Bucharest, New York Metropolitan Museum, Brooklyn Museum NY, Museum of Fine Art Boston, National Gallery of Art Washington, Smithsonian, Fine Art Museum of San Francisco, Cleveland Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum, Huntington Library, Harvard University Art Gallery, Joslyn Art Museum Omaha, Norton Simon Museum Pasadena, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Saint Louis Art Museum, Wittes Art Museum, Philbrook Museum of Art, University Art Gallery, Halifax Nova Scotia, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes Buenos Aires.