Henri Martin moved to Paris in 1879 from his home town of Toulouse. A scholarship enabled him to study in the studio of Jean-Paul Laurens and in 1883, at the age of twenty-three, he gained his first medal at the Paris Salon.
In 1885 Martin was awarded a scholarship by the Salon to study in Italy, a journey that was to have a profound effect upon his artistic development. Until this period he had favoured literary, historical and Biblical subjects painted in a precise, academic technique, but the Italian light and his study of masters such as Giotto and Masaccio gave him a new perspective.
Martin returned to Paris in 1889. Influenced by the Neo-Impressionists, Martin used the Divisionist technique to give his work an ethereal quality; he abandoned the academic style of his earlier works and in 1889 submitted a canvas to the Salon that was wholly Pointillist. During the next decade, impressed by the work of the Symbolists, Martin peopled his landscape with shimmering allegorical figures and floating muses. Puvis de Chavannes said of him: ‘Celui-ça sera mon héritier, il continuera’. However, from 1900 Martin appears to have detached himself from the Symbolists and allowed his admiration for the Impressionists to influence his work to a greater extent.
Martin was a talented painter of large-scale decorative commissions, including the murals for the Hôtel de Ville in Paris (1895-6), which combine figures of Apollo and the Muses with official portraits in dreamlike landscapes that blend Pointillist brushwork and academic drawing. Later murals, such as Mowers for the Toulouse Capitole, employ allegory only within the context of the celebration of nature and the rhythm of agricultural life.
A shy, quiet character, Henri Martin remained independent, refusing to be contracted to one particular Parisian dealer, despite the success garnered by many of his contemporaries by such arrangements. In 1900 he bought Marquayrol, an old farmhouse near Labastide-du-Vert in the Lot Valley. The house, his family and the beautiful landscape provided him with inspiration for the rest of his life. Martin sought to convey the colours and textures of the changing seasons and the ancient rhythm of the agricultural world. These canvases are considered to be amongst his most successful works. Henri Martin died at Marquayrol in 1943.
The work of Henri Martini is represented in the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Hôtel de Ville and the Conseil d’Etat, Paris; the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux; the Capitole and the Musée Augustins, Toulouse, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal.