Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 97 x 163 cm
Signed: and dated lower left: HJHARPIGNIES / 1859
Maxime du Camp, Le Salon de 1859, Paris, 1859, p. 109; Louis Auvray, Exposition des Beaux-Arts. Salon de 1859, Paris, 1859, p. 63; Henry Dumesnil, Le Salon de 1859, Paris, 1859, p. 51; Pierre Miquel, L’école de la nature: Le Paysage français au XIXe siècle, 1824-1874, Editions de la Martinelle, Maurs-la-jolie, 1975, vol. III, pp.750-751.
Paris, 1859, Salon. no. 1404, as Le Retour
Return from the War was the centerpiece in Harpignies’ submission to the Salon of 1859, the most important of three paintings that he sent to an exhibition crucial to his future. A relatively new artist, Harpignies had just begun to attract supportive critical attention at the preceding Salon; and he clearly hoped to build on that success with this large rural landscape enlivened with a troop of French soldiers. For the landscape itself, Harpignies chose the edge of a small village whose long, commodious barns and big walled homesteads suggest the prosperous farmlands of his native region on the French-Belgian border. To underline the identification with French Flanders, he filled the sky with soft, subtle clouds that cast the terrain below in a golden-gray glow typical of northern France. And, since he had been praised for the charm of the young children featured in earlier Salon paintings, Harpignies accompanied the troop of soldiers with an exuberant gang of village youngsters, who carry the soldiers’ packs or wear their swords as they enthusiastically lead the way into town. That careful preparation was well rewarded: in 1859 Harpignies’ paintings caught the eye of the prominent and powerful conservative critic Maxime Du Camp, who described Return from the War at great length for his readers and complimented the artist on “…a very pleasing composition, just as clever as anything Monsieur Harpignies has ever done before…“.
Harpignies’ decision to organize his village scene around a military subject, albeit a lively, friendly event, is an unusual choice. It was certainly an effort to emphasize the modernity of his composition, for France was at war during much of the 1850s. Napoleon III, in an effort to reclaim French prestige and to strengthen his own identification with the military prowess of his still-revered uncle, dispatched troops throughout Europe. Harpignies painted Return from the War following the Treaty of Paris that ended French participation in the Crimean War and just as France sent further troops to fight in northern Italy against the Austrian empire. He kept the tone of his painting gentle, making it clear these soldiers are returning from duty rather than setting off for battles, since the leading officer wears his arm in a sling and just behind, a soldier has detached himself from the column to step into the arms of his family. Respectful villagers welcome the soldiers, and the unusual spectacle has even brought the gleaners from the fields — three children standing at center left hold small armloads of just-gathered grain.
Beyond his references to current events in France, Harpignies may also have wished to associate his own art with the precedent of the great eighteenth-century painter, Watteau, the only French artist who had made a practice of happy military landscapes, and who, like Harpignies, was a native of Valenciennes.
In the crucial decade between the Expositions Universelles (World Fairs) of 1855 and 1867, the Barbizon artists and the large group of less controversial naturalist painters were finally winning a measure of respect for realistic landscape painting. But a major landscape destined for a Salon exhibition still called for a clear subject to justify its size and to appeal to a broad audience. And for a new artist to stand out, he needed to establish an identity either by specializing in a distinct region of France or by displaying particular skill with the figures or animals that ranged through his landscapes. With Return from the War, Harpignies presented himself as a painter of serious ambition, attuned to both the past and the future of French landscape painting. In the succeeding decade of the 1860s he would be well rewarded with a gold medal and a purchase by the Emperor himself.