Provence, as a foretaste of Italy, has always attracted poets, painters and writers who have been captivated by its climate and moved to celebrate its light. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the wild Mediterranean landscape, unchanged down through the centuries, became a new Arcadia for artists who were intent on exploring the territory and their imaginations in equal measure. Harpignies’ conception of landscape differed from that of his contemporaries in that he favoured the immutable aspects of Nature over its momentary effects.
An avid admirer of Corot and François-Louis Français, who was a friend of his, Harpignies practised plein air painting throughout France. Anatole France, who recognized the artist’s fondness for this theme, called him the “Michelangelo of the trees.” In response to an invitation from the students in his Paris studio, Harpignies would head to the South of France, putting the greyness of the Île-de-France behind him; or he would set out on the road to Italy, whose landscapes would earn him numerous prizes and medals in the Salon. Although faithful to the principles of the Barbizon School, the artist, who was an accomplished draftsman, used colour in the service of form. In this painting, the structure of the trees predominates, while the seascape and mountain views are merely suggested in order to convey the general atmosphere. This canvas imbued with naturalism quietly heralds the master’s final works, which are characterized by the fresh luminosity he acquired through contact with his young colleagues and his experiences with watercolours.