Medium: Oil On Canvas
Size: 94 x 161 cm
Signed: lower right: hjharpignies / 1853
Private Collection, Paris.
Turner e gli Impressionisti: La grande storia del paesaggio moderno in Europa, Linea d’ombra: Bescia, October 2007, Ill. in color; To be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné by Robert Hellebranth
Paris, 1853, Salon. no. 588; Turner e gli Impressionisti: La grande storia del paesaggio moderno in Europa, Bescia, Museo di Santa Giulia, 28 October – 9 April 2007.
To be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné by Robert Hellebranth
For an artist who came later to painting than his contemporaries, without the early training at the École des Beaux Arts, the thirty-four year old Harpignies no doubt presented his first Salon painting with some trepidation. While its impressive scale demonstrates the importance the artist attributed to this painting, it did not herald the future path the artist would take but instead marks a tribute to the finished Salon pictures of Corot and other French artists working in Italy in the second quarter of the century.
Capri (based on either the Latin word capra for goat, or Greek kapros for wild boar) had been first a Greek settlement, then a favorite resort of the early Roman Emperors, notably Augustus and Tiberius, who both built villas there. Later often harassed by pirates, the population moved their settlements away from the small natural harbors, up to what are the present-day towns of Capri and Anacapri. The latter, only approachable by the steps of the Scala Fenice (Phoenician steps), was impassable to horse-drawn traffic until the construction of the carriage road, yet to be constructed at the time Harpignies painted this work. The island had been held by the Kings of the Two Sicilies since the thirteenth century, and had been a popular tourist destination for visitors to Naples since the early eighteenth. With the rediscovery of the Blue Grotto in 1826 its attractions became even more famous, and visitors to the island, then as today, would walk from the main town up to the Villa Iovis (behind the viewer), or climb to Anacapri on Monte Solaro, the high point in the center of the work. In the center the dome of the 17th century (former) cathedral church of S. Stefano can be seen, dominating the town of Capri as it does today.
Harpignies has not yet adopted the more naturalistic approach that followed his return to France and his re-exposure to the work of painters such as Rousseau and Millet, the leaders of the more naturalistic school of landscape painting. He had traveled extensively across Italy in the preceding year and this painting was certainly the product of direct observation, even though evidently completed in the studio. A recent photograph taken from approximately the same vantage point (now unhappily compromised by the numerous modern villas that cover what in 1853 was a verdant valley) shows that the artist has maintained topographical verisimilitude in his presentation of the town of Capri, the hill to the south and Monte Solaro behind. The composition, with its broad sweep, enabled the artist to present a much broader perspective than was possible from this point; thus he has brought the viewer into the very foreground while also enabling us to see both north and south of Monte Solaro. By extending the view towards the right, where the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean can be seen stretching into the distance, he has given a distant horizon point that would have been otherwise impossible because of the limitations imposed by the mountainous west of the island. It is also a direct tribute to a work of his teacher, Jean-Alexis Achard (1807-1884), whose View of the Environs of Grenoble had been exhibited at the Salon of 1845 (Paris, Louvre). The emphasis in Achard’s painting is a similar rocky spine, and it shared with the View of Capri a strongly colored palette, and avoidance of any hint of the academic rigors of the historical landscape.