Active in late-19th, early 20th-century France, Henri-Joseph Harpignies did landscape painting that combined Realism with influences of the Barbizon School and Tonalism, especially the composition and coloration of Cámille Corot (1796-1875).
Harpignies began his career in 1846, when he was 27 years old. He was born in Valenciennes to a family that ran a sugar beet factory. As a child he had only a few art lessons, and did not turn to any serious focus on painting until he had worked for several years in business.
He began his formal art education in the studio of J.A. Achard, and on his teacher's recommendation went to Italy, Germany and the Netherlands to paint scenes from those countries and to study their 'Old Masters'. In 1853, he had his first work accepted at the Paris Salon, and in 1859, he submitted one of his most major works, Return from the War, which received positive reviews and did much to establish his reputation as a major national landscape painter. Done in a period when landscape painting had dubious worth among academic judges, Harpignies put in narrative details that 'spoke' of much more than just landscape. The canvas was a large-scale scene with a troop of French solidiers cheered by a happy group of village children, interacting near prosperous looking farms beneath a glowing sky. By depicitng "long, commodious barns and big walled homesteads", he suggested a specific region, which was on the French border with Belgium, and the soldiers, of course, reflected the war of the 1850s.
In 1863, the Salon Jury refused three out of four of his paintings. Angered he spent two years in Italy, but in 1865, had revenge because the Emperior bought one of his entries. The next year, representatives of the State purchased two more paintings for the government's collecton, and also awarded him a gold medal. From that time, his reputation grew internationally as well as in his own country, and in 1900, he received a major honor, which was the Grand Prix award at the Exposition Universelle.
From the time he began exhibiting regularly at the Salon, he painted for nearly fifty years, exhibiting both watercolors and oil paintings in most of the Salons and in exhibitions in other countries as well. Harpignies took particular interest in the Barbizon artists, who were doing plein-air painting at the village of Barbizon. He also traveled widely, both to other countries and within France, especially to Marly near the Forest of Fontainebleau and to Hérisson in the Allier area of the Auvergne. In 1879, he began spending most of his summers in St.-Prive in Burgundy, where he purchased property. He spent his winters along the Riviera including at Nice and Antibes.
Henri-Joseph Harpignies died in St.-Privé in 1916. The well-known critic, Anatole France, said that Harpignies was "the Michelangelo of trees."