Two tall, slender olive trees stand on the rough ground at the top of a hill overlooking the sea. Their trunks are crooked and gnarled, the brittle bark catching the sun and glinting here and there.
This is Menton on the French Côte d‘Azure. It was a fashionable resort in Harpignies’ time, but he has chosen to ignore the villas and restaurants among coloured umbrellas and palm trees to show us the tougher side of the Mediterranean, where plants and people had more of a struggle to live than down at the coast.
Harpignies harked back to the idyllic landscapes of Claude, painted nearly three centuries before, but without characters from Greek or Roman myth. He depicted what he saw around him, as other modern painters did, but with a smoother, more classical technique – he was of his day, but with a firm link to the past.
Two tall, slender olive trees stand on the rough ground at the top of a hill overlooking the sea. Their trunks are crooked and gnarled, the brittle bark catching the sun and glinting here and there. Small branches and twigs are stark silhouettes but the tiny, pale leaves make a filigree, fine as confetti fluttering against the sky.
More trees frame the picture – there’s another olive on the left and a fine, bushy conifer on the right. A row of dark green pines and cypresses make a barrier at the bottom of the hill, between us and the Mediterranean Sea. All is still on the hillside, but out on the deep blue water the wind whips up white waves and, in the distance, a long spit of land reaches outward like a grey shadow. The olive trees close to us are painted in minute, loving detail, and the earth in which they grow is almost palpable in its chunky, crumbly reality. Small scrubby plants, twigs and a few meagre flowers are painted in myriad subtle shades of green, grey, brown, ochre and gold, giving texture and richness. The sky too is textured. Far from a solid blue as it first appears, the small puffy clouds float on dabs of different blues and greys, softening to a pale gleam across the horizon.
Harpignies seldom gave his pictures titles, but in this case he did. This is Menton, on the Côte d‘Azure in southern France – in Harpignies’ time, a fashionable resort where elegant people went to see and be seen. But he chose to ignore the villas and restaurants among coloured umbrellas and palm trees, instead showing us the tougher side of the Mediterranean, high up where plants and people had more of a struggle to live than down at the coast.
Painted in 1907, this is Harpignies at his most delicate and sensitive. At the age of 87, he used light and colour to achieve a picture of great charm and delicacy (not always present in his much earlier work, for instance A River Scene, painted some 30 years before). He was not an artist to break new ground, perhaps; he preferred to hark back to the idyllic landscapes of Claude, painted in Rome nearly three centuries before, but without the setting of a Greek or Roman myth. In this he was in accord with his great friend and fellow artist, Camille Corot, whose Avignon from the West also looks out at the Mediterranean, complete with an olive tree. They depicted what they saw around them, as other modern painters, like Monet, were doing, but with a smoother, more classical technique – artists of their day but with a firm link to the past.
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