These beautiful preserved coppers, both signed and dated 1766, are outstanding examples from Jakob Philipp Hackert's sojourn in France. Though he was born in Germany, Hackert spent most of his life in Italy, where he established a reputation primarily as a landscapist and enjoyed the patronage of Pope Pius VI, Catherine the Great of Russia, and the King of Naples, among others. During his formative years in his native country, Hackert worked with his father, the portraitist Philipp Hackert, and went on to study at the Berlin Academy. After the purchase of two of his works in 1761 by Frederick the Great, Hackert moved to northern Germany, and in 1765 left for Paris, where there was a growing demand for the refined, picturesque vistas for which he was becoming known.
While in France, Hackert made several trips outside of Paris, including a 1766 tour of Normandy with his brother Johann Gottlieb, the painter Nicolas Pérignon, and the Swiss topographical watercolourist Samuel Heironymus Grimm (1733-1794), during which the present works were painted. The soft, suffusive light, picturesque figures of peasants going about their daily routines, and use of tree repoussoirs owe much to Vernet, while the format of a winding river dotted with ancient buildings comes from a Flemish-German tradition of landscape painting that ultimately goes back to Jan Brueghel I (1568-1625). The use of a copper support, common in 17th-century cabinet paintings from northern Europe and also sometimes employed by Vernet, gives the pictures a highly finished surface.
Although temperamentally idyllic, the location of at least the first picture can be identified as Rouen by Saint Catherine's hill, which rises out of the atmospheric distance. The view, we can then infer, is take from near Sahurs and Hautot-sur-Seine, where the river bends to the left and Rouen is hidden behind the mountainous ledge dedicated to Saint Catherine. Indeed, Hackert's sketchbook from this period features a drawing inscribed 'à Rouen' that appears to show the same Renaissance château perched atop the foreground cliff (fig. 1). In the painting, of course, Hackert has enhanced the drama of the château, its turrets embowered in trees and surrounded by a flock of birds that sink downwards into the dusky sky.