Mont Blanc in the Alps, near the border of France, Italy, and Switzerland, had an unparalleled impact on the Romantic imagination. Percy Shelley refashioned Burke’s notion of the sublime within this mountain’s vale; Mary Shelley used its “awful majesty” to stage the confrontation between Victor Frankenstein and his monster; Wordsworth registered disappointment during The Prelude, finding that the peak left “a soulless image on the eye”; and — in typical form, chronicled by Fiona MacCarthy — Byron “jeered at an Englishwoman, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, whom he overheard asking the members of her party whether they had ever seen anything so rural, as if it were Highgate, Hampstead, Brompton or Hayes”. During the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, the mountain’s “blanc” became polysemous: white but also blank, a page on which to record “peak experiences”.
It was not only poets who sought these treacherous climes. In the tradition of Lord Shaftesbury, who took an Alpine journey in the 1690s, the mountain became a touchstone for politics. As Peter H. Hansen discusses, the mountaineer Jacques Balmat made a contested first ascent in the 1780s, “suggesting resistance to the revolutionary mountain and ambivalence toward the French Empire”. In 1811, a “trigonometrical signal”, which looked alot like a cross, was constructed on the summit, engraved with the names of Napoleon, Balmat, and others, introducing religious iconography in the wake of the revolution’s iconoclasm. For curious Brits unable to traverse its precipices after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, Mont Blanc was exported home in the form of entertainment (“The New Game of the Ascent of Mont Blanc”) and human curiosities. Albert Smith, whose ascent was exhibited in London’s Egyptian Hall, brought back a Bernese woman — in line with Thomas Gray’s 1739 proposition that mountain dwellers were spectacular, “Alpine monsters” — whom he introduced to Queen Victoria at Winsor, according to Alan McNee.
Part of this mania for Mont Blanc was fueled by prints, like those made by George Baxter — the father of color printing — based on the sketches of John MacGregor, yet another courageous explorer to reach the summit. These four “views” capture a different, mid-century side of the mountain. We see, above all else, the impact of tourism on a mountain now reopened to Brits, engendered by the popularity of Romantic poetry, increased railway travel, and a notion that the Swiss Alps were conducive to Protestant encounters with God. In these views, the sublime has been swapped for l’heure bleue, that crepuscular moment of alpenglow, enjoyed in the company of fellow explorers.
The four prints hold together as a progressive narrative of ascent. In the first, titled “The Glacier du Tacconay”, we see three vibrantly illustrated explorers hauling a fourth out of a deadly crevasse. In the background, two dozen figures are also present, but they have been completely desaturated, as if they are slowly merging into their icy environs. “Leaving the Grands Mulets” uses the same effect, but depicts a descent from pineconey peaks. A final print titled “The Summit” captures the heady exhaustion of a successful submit. A couple of explorers raise schnapps-sized glasses on a rounded dome of snow, while two others have almost collapsed from exhaustion.
Beyond their visual impact, the prints came with a description that contains its own form of literary experimentation, demonstrating the waning influence of Romanticism on mountaineering. The preface focuses less on the individual, heroic explorer, more on collective expeditions and technical achievement. “Mules, guides and porters; ropes, knapsacks and ice axes; provisions, blue spectacles, firewood, gaiters, and iron-spiked shoes; —alpenstocks, green veils, and snow gloves (like large little babies’ gloves with a thumb and general finger).” There is a fun interplay between life and art, as if the painter might provide a kind of protection that crampons cannot. “See how the treacherous ice breaks: but the oil brush has just caught that falling man in time.” And we find a humorous acknowledgement that the mountain is now overlaid with the heavy impact of human life. “The spasmodic and quick repeated sound, ‘’ppahh,’ ‘’ppahh,’ of fifty smokers on Mont Blanc—could anybody sleep under it?”
October 7, 2021