The birth of mountaineering

The birth of mountaineering

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  • Landscape of Susten in Switzerland.

    LEPRINCE Xavier (1799 - 1826)

  • Passage of Mont Saint-Bernard.


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Title: Landscape of Susten in Switzerland.

Author : LEPRINCE Xavier (1799 - 1826)

Creation date : 1824

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 81.5 - Width 105

Technique and other indications: Oil painting on canvas

Storage location: Decorative Arts Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowskisite web

Picture reference: 95DE13220 / Inv 7333

Landscape of Susten in Switzerland.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

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Title: Passage of Mont Saint-Bernard.

Author : GUERARD (-)

Creation date : 1830

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Series: "The tourists"

Storage location: National museums and domain of Compiègne website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Picture reference: 97CE1601 / CMV. 1885

Passage of Mont Saint-Bernard.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - D. Arnaudet

Publication date: March 2016

Historical context

What is the point of the mountains, a non-agricultural land with such a harsh climate?

For a long time, the summits remain a forbidden territory, where beliefs locate the home of the dragons and the devil. In the XVIIIe century, the mountain becomes, like the ocean, a “site of experimentation and definition of a new aesthetic-moral category” (T. Dufrêne, “The“ mountain of glass ”and the artistic challenges of the crystal theme” , in Grenoble Museum, The feeling of the mountain, Glénat, RMN, 1998, p. 85). The discovery of the ocean is concomitant (see A. Corbin, The Territory of the Void. The West and the longing for the shore, Flammarion, 1990).

Mont Blanc was conquered in 1786 by two Chamoniards, Paccard and Balmat; their feat was repeated the following year by the Genevois De Saussure. This double ascent appears to be the "founding event" in the history of mountaineering (P. Joutard, The invention of Mont Blanc, Archives collection, Gallimard-Juillard, 1986, p. 198). In 1802, the German naturalist Humboldt tried (in vain) to climb the Chimborazo, in the Andes, which rises to more than 6,200 m.

The 1820s were a pivotal moment in the history of mountaineering. Expeditions to assault Mont Blanc are increasing, especially because of the British (like the fellows of Cambridge); in the Chamonix region, the Compagnie des guides was founded in 1821-1823, the first step towards professionalization; Pelvoux was conquered a few years later, in 1835.

Image Analysis

It is precisely from this period that the paintings shown here date. Leprince's genre scenes (1799-1826) were greatly appreciated by the elites of the Restoration.

The Susten landscape in Switzerland, acquired by Charles X in 1826, depicts three tourists and their guide on an excursion in the Susten Pass, at an altitude of over 2,000 meters, not far from the Aar valley (canton of Uri). One scans the sky with perplexity, the other flatters the goats, the third draws under the eyes of the guide who is watching him, a pipe in his mouth. The careful craftsmanship of the painting does not exclude a play of perspective underlined by the contrast of colors, the pinkish brown hues of the rocks and the animals, on the one hand, and the whiteness of the snow, the peaks and the sky, on the other.

If Leprince's canvas testifies both to the beauties of the mountain and to the realities of early mountaineering, as Turner and the German romantics did in some respects in the years 1800-1820, Guérard's lithography somewhat emphasizes little ironic about its dangers.

The Passage of Mont Saint-Bernard, executed around 1830, belongs to the series "The Tourists", which includes many other episodes. Here, the spectator witnesses the rout of an expedition of "climbers" surprised by the difficulty of their enterprise. In a rather comical mess, they try to get out of the bad situation where they fell.

The realistic account of Leprince and the caricature of Guérard do not have the same tone; but all these elegantly dressed bourgeois, united by a common taste for adventure, take part in expeditions that are all the more picturesque as one detects a certain amateurism.


Born at the beginning of the XIXe century, mountain tourism is gradually popularizing. The dioramas of Chamonix, by Albert Smith, put the mountain in fashion in the 1850s. At the start of the Third Republic, the modernization of hotels, the development of refuges, the marking of paths, the creation of highlighting the French Alps. At the same time, we can see the creation of the French Alpine Club (1874), the Société des Touristes du Dauphiné (1875) and, in the United Kingdom, the Alpine Club (1863).

These two paintings reflect the emergence of a leisure activity, invented by the British urban bourgeoisie and a source of new emotions (even if they are initially hidden under scientific pretexts). This hobby, like the others, fits into the new definition of the uses of time, "free time" or "time for oneself".

The wise equipped of some and the discomfiture of others remind us of the importance of the mountain guide. Modern mountaineering, in fact, is based on the guide-client couple, "the first, an indigenous person embodying physical strength, natural knowledge and the popular world, the second, foreign, learned science and urban notability" (P . Joutard, "From belief to imagination", in Regional ethnology documents, flight. 9, “High mountain imaginaries”, Center alpin et rhodanien d’ethnologie, Glénat, 1987, p. 9).

  • mountaineering
  • bourgeoisie
  • Hobbies
  • health
  • Mountain
  • sport


COLLECTIVE, “The high mountain. Vision and representations ”, Regional journal of ethnology, Grenoble, 1988.

COLLECTIVE, Regional ethnology documents, flight. 9, "Imaginaries of the High Mountain", Center alpin et rhodanien d’ethnologie, Glénat, 1987.

Claire-Éliane ENGEL, History of mountaineering from the origins to the present day, “Je sers” editions, 1950.

Philippe JOUTARD, The Invention of Mont Blanc, Archives collection, Gallimard-Juillard, 1986.

GRENOBLE MUSEUM, The feeling of the mountain, Glénat, NMR, 1998.

Paul VEYNE, "Alpinism: an invention of the bourgeoisie", The story, no 11, 1979, p. 41-49.

To cite this article

Ivan JABLONKA, "The birth of mountaineering"

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