At the age of twenty-seven, Henri Joseph Harpignies abandonned a career as an industrial merchant to embrace the life of an artist. He began by working en plein air with the painter Jean Achard, and then completed his training in Rome. Back in France in 1852, he settled in Paris where his qualities as a painter soon established his reputation. His long career crowned with constant success blossomed through watercolors which he practiced with great freedom.
Enamoured of the countryside and constantly in contact with Nature, Harpignies roamed numerous French regions. In the forest of Fontainebleau, this fervent admirer of Corot could be seen even as he kept his personal style quite distinct from that of the Barbizon school.
During the summer of 1869, the artist discovered the Forest of Tronçais in the Allier, thanks to one of his students, Jeanne Rongier. Her father, a property manager on the Duke of Morny’s lands, rented the Montais Château near Brethon and invited the artist. During a hunt with hounds during this sojourn, Harpignies got lost and had to take a long detour, which caused him to discover la Bouteille, the Château of Creux, the road from Vallon to Hérisson which ran along the Aumance, the château de la Roche and Chateloy. Taken by the site, the painter vowed to return. Thus each year, he rented a house in Hérisson, before acquiring in 1879 the property of La Trémellerie at Saint-Privé, in the Yonne, along the banks of the Loing. From then on, the artist spent all his summers for the rest of his life at Saint-Privé, which was ideally situated between the valleys of the Allier, the Aumance, and the Nièvre.
Painted the very year that Harpignies settled at Saint-Privé, our watercolor seems to evoke the hilly surroundings of Hérisson more than the vast plains of the Loing. Behind the apparent freedom of execution and spontaneous view is hidden a well thought-out construction and plasticity. The sinuous verticals of the trees stand out against the sky and organize the space between the opaque hills below and the transparent lace of foliage above which are cut off by the edge of the paper. Traversed by a few bluish grey clouds, the white of the paper replaces celestial blue and gives the impression of an overcast, chilly but luminous day. All is rendered in muted harmonies of greens and browns from which the frail silhouettes stand out of a mother clothed in blue and wearing a red hat accompanied by her young son. These minute figures are reduced to dashes of color in several drawings and oils by Harpignies produced in 1879 and the following years.
General Literature (Unpublished Work)
Jean-Louis BALLERET, De Corot à Balthus, Paris, Cercle d’art, 1997.
Catalogue de l’exposition de 25 tableaux, 40 aquarelles de Harpignies présentés par Lucien Moline dans les salons du Grand Hôtel de Roubaix, Roubaix, 1928.
Paul GOSSET, Henri Harpignies, peintre paysagiste français, 1982.
Henri-Joseph Harpignies paintings and watercolors. A Loan Exhibition, Memphis, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 1978.
Harpignies, exhibition catalogue, Maubeuge, Musée Fercot-Delmotte, 1977.
Henri Harpignies, 1819-1916, exhibition catalogue, Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1970.