Henri Harpignies
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The Grand Cascade in the Park at Saint Cloud, 1867
Graphite with watercolors on white paper
24.3 x 33.1 cm
Bequeathed by Francis Falconer Madan, 1962
WA 1962.17.46

Henri-Joseph Harpignies was born in 1819 in Valenciennes, France, to solidly bourgeois parents.  Though he showed interest in drawing and painting at a young age, his more serious training began in 1846, when he studied in Paris with the landscape painter Jean-Alexis Achard.  In 1849, Harpignies traveled to Germany and then to Rome.  It was there that he seemed to find his greatest influences, both in the landscape of the campagna and in the painter Corot.  Inspired by the landscape around him, Harpignies would later write in his journal about his experiences:

I have been enraptured by the paths of Civitavecchia in Rome, the sea at the right, the hillocks on the left.  This was it—the country that I had dreamed of.  The impression was immense and happy for me; the landscape is engraved in my mind in golden letters.  Form exists there par excellence as it does throughout the Roman campagna; it was there that I fully understood form, and this landscape has been my guide throughout my career.[i] 

 On that trip to Rome, Harpignies executed his first watercolors, which would later be known as his signature medium.  He returned to France in 1853, exhibiting for the first time at the Salon, where he was generally well-received.  He spent the next few years traveling around in France until 1863, when he returned to Italy, remaining there until 1865.  With the vivid colors of the Roman countryside on his mind, he continued to paint watercolors of his homeland, such as The Grand Cascade at the Park at Saint Cloud.

Saint Cloud, located 11km outside Paris, was the country residence of Philippe d’Orléans, the younger brother of Louis XIV, from 1658 until his death in 1701.  In 1660, Monsieur (as Philippe d’Orléans was called) chose Antoine Le Pautre to design the Grand Cascade as well as various additions to the château.  Initially, allegorical figures of the Seine and the Loire were placed on the balustrade, but these were replaced in the 1730s by figures of the Seine and the Marne, which remain there today, and are seen in Harpignies’ rendering of the cascade.[ii]  Essentially, the cascade is a giant fountain, built to showcase jets of running and moving water.  Seen as an architectural marvel when it was built, the Grand Cascade remains one of the focal points of the park at Saint Cloud. 

Though Saint Cloud’s history as an architectural site is rich, most nineteenth-century depictions of Saint Cloud tended to focus on the pastoral instead of the architectural aspects—in the 1830s, a movement emerged among naturalistic landscape painters in which they began to turn their gaze towards their native landscape[iii].  Locations such as the forest at Fontainebleau, Saint Cloud, and Compiègne became popular subjects and remained sources of artistic inspiration well into the late 19th century, due in part, to their proximity to Paris.  It was easy for Parisian painters to find their own patch of country landscape in Fontainebleau or Saint Cloud.  Because these painters sought to depict their native landscape, it did not often include the architecture of the surrounding areas. 

Harpignies’ depiction of Saint Cloud is unusual both in that he depicts the Grand Cascade and that he only shows part of it, pushing it asymmetrically to one side, unbalancing an architectural monument known for its symmetry.  Instead of glorifying this man-made water machine, Harpignies celebrates the beauty of the surrounding wooded area.  He does not show the fountain with its jets of water in motion, thus removing the most celebrated portion of the fountain from his depiction.  Every effort has been made in the structure and creation of this cascade to emphasize the presence of a man-made object in the midst of a natural setting.  The light-colored stone is a striking contrast to the surrounding foliage; the cascade is set down in the midst of nature but set apart from it.  This is perhaps Harpignies’ point—that this man-made structure, much admired in its time, should not supercede the beauty of the surrounding trees and the park, which is evident in his handling of the different portions of the composition.  He uses short, abbreviated brushstrokes to barely render the outline and forms of the cascade.  Very little attention is paid to the actual details of the architecture, especially in comparison to his depiction of the trees and surrounding foliage.  Here, Harpignies places a great deal of attention on the various effects of light and shadow on the leaves; he uses small touches of color to create a dappled effect on the trees.  The influence of Corot’s color palette can be seen in the silvery-green areas on either side of the page.  He forces the cascade into the lower right-hand portion of the page, not even showing the entirety of the cascade which extends further down and flows into a keyhole-shaped pool. 

[i] Cited in Miquel, Pierre. L’École de la Nature. (Maurs-la-Jolie: Éditions de la Martinelle, 1975), 747.  All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

[ii] For more on the Grand Cascade, see chapter 7 of Robert Berger’s book, Antoine Le Pautre: A French Architect in the Era of Louis XIV. New York: New York University Press, 1969.

[iii] Adams, Steven. The Barbizon School and the Origins of Impressionism. London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1994.

Alison Chang

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