Harpignies bought a box of oil paints in 1844. Thwarting his father’s ambitions for him, he trained under the landscape artist Jean-Alexis Achard. He travelled to France, Flanders, the Netherlands and along the banks of the Rhine in Germany before reaching Italy in 1850.
In his diary recalls his enthusiasm: “This is indeed the country of which I dreamed […]. I loved form and it exists there par excellence and everywhere else in the Roman Campagna; this is where I really came to understand it and it has been my guide throughout my entire career”. This watercolour is among the artist’s earliest works. “I began to paint seriously in watercolours in 1851. Nobody showed me anything. I started off on my own”. It may represent the banks of the Tiber or Nazons Rock painted a quarter of a century earlier by Corot. Returning to Paris in 1853, he exhibited for the first time at the Salon with a view of Capri and met Troyon and Corot, whom he revered. He cultivated originality, as is demonstrated in his writings: “you painters of pigs in mud and rowers, uncompromising realists, painters of the banks of the Marne and Seine and other such hackneyed subjects, why don’t you go and see Poussin’s Valley, the Egerian Valley or the Farnese island, so little known to foreigners, and there you will see true landscapes”. He made a second trip to Rome between 1863 and 1865.