The Awe of the Alps: Alexandre Calame 1

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), Stormy Mountain Torrent (1848), oil on canvas, 83.5 x 113.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

By the nineteenth century, ‘genteel’ people (such as patrons of the arts) were starting to discover the challenges and rewards of Europe’s mountainous and wild regions, including the Alps and Switzerland. Just as artists like JMW Turner sold paintings in their home markets showing the savage beauty of the distant Alps, so Swiss painters came to sell local paintings to intrepid and awe-struck tourists.

Among them was Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), who was an important influence on the early work of Ferdinand Hodler, and remains one of Switzerland’s major artists. This article and its sequel look briefly at the career and work of Calame, whose paintings have since travelled out to collections all over Europe and North America.

Calame was born in a small village, which has since grown to the town housing the worldwide HQ of Nestlé, on the shore of Lake Geneva. He lost one eye in a childhood accident, and the family moved to Geneva when he was fourteen. Two years later, his father was killed in an accident, and the young Calame had to start bringing money into the family by colouring black and white engravings to sell to tourists, as well as working in a bank.

In 1829, Calame’s artistic talents were spotted by the banker who was to be his early patron, and he started to learn to paint with another great Swiss landscape artist, François Diday (1802-77).

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), Swiss Landscape (c 1830), oil on paper mounted on canvas, 40 × 52 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Although dated to about 1830, Calame’s superb Swiss Landscape seems too mature for someone so early in their training. It shows the shore of one of the country’s large lakes, probably Lake Geneva, and is a textbook example of aerial perspective.

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), View of Bouveret (1833), oil on panel, 35 x 47.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Calame’s View of Bouveret from 1833 also attests to his very rapid development. At this time, the mountains remain distant and almost lost from view, and a grey heron stalks at the water’s edge in the foreground. Bouveret is at the southern end of Lake Geneva, close to the border with France.

By 1834, Calame had set up his own studio, and was already teaching drawing.

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), Farm with Peasant and Animals (1833-36), oil on canvas, 35.5 × 49 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In 1835, Calame started travelling, first to the Bernese Oberland in central Switzerland, where he painted its spectacular scenery and rural scenes. In his highly detailed view of a Farm with Peasant and Animals (1833-36), a woman sits on a wooden drinking trough as her goats, sheep and chickens wander in the yard between the tumbledown buildings. That year, he exhibited his first work(s) at the Salon in Paris.

Calame’s paintings were now selling healthily, and he was becoming well-known in Germany and France. In 1838, he visited the Netherlands, where he studied the landscape masters including Jacob van Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema, who were to influence his later work. The following year, his third exhibiting at the Salon in Paris, secured his international reputation, and ensured a steady stream of lucrative work.

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), Workshop in Valais (1840), oil on paper mounted on cardboard, 28.5 × 43.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Workshop in Valais (1840) shows the remains of an old workshop in the south-west of Switzerland, in a painting which is unusually sketchy for Calame, suggesting that he may have painted it largely in front of the motif.

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), Landscape (1830-45), media not known, 57 x 82.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

The influence of van Ruisdael and Hobbema on Calame’s paintings is seen most strongly in the latter’s Landscape (1830-45), which surely must have been painted after he had returned from the Netherlands in 1838.

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), Fallen Tree (1839-45), oil on paper mounted on canvas, 25 x 41 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Fallen Tree (1839-45) is a marvellous study which also bears the hallmarks of being painted largely en plein air, despite its great detail.

In 1844, Calame travelled to Italy with some of his students, but suffered from dysentery which limited his ability to paint during the trip. He did, though, advance his skills in painting in oils en plein air, and demonstrated that he was able to paint the motifs of the Roman Campagna as well as the Alps.

This was shortly after Camille Corot’s formative visits to the Roman Campagna, when such experience was considered an essential part of the training of all good landscape artists. With that and his knowledge of the great Dutch landscape masters, Calame was at last fully qualified in the eyes of his peers.

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), Stormy Mountain Torrent (1848), oil on canvas, 83.5 x 113.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Stormy Mountain Torrent (1848) is typical of many of Calame’s commissions – and by this time he worked almost entirely to commission – for what he termed his “Swiss horrors”. These brought together the forbidding mountainous terrain of the Alps, stormy weather, and a raging torrent, although in nature those sights would have been unlikely to have been synchronous.

Lake Lucerne is a huge lake of complex form carved into the heart of Switzerland and is known by many names. Among those are Vierwaldstättersee and the Lake of the Four Cantons; its four arms and other segments are often known by names such as Urnersee, Küssnachtersee, and Luzernersee. It became a favourite motif for Calame.

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), View of the Urnersee (Lake Lucerne) (1848), media not knonw, 32 x 40 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

View of the Urnersee is an oil sketch of part of Lake Lucerne which Calame painted in 1848, in which he brings together the rugged cliffs, twisted trees, and just a hint of its mountainous backdrop.

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), View of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) (1849), oil on wood, 67 x 86 cm, Villa Vauban, Musée d’art de la ville de Luxembourg, Luxembourg. Wikimedia Commons.

Painted in the studio the following year, his finished View of Lake Geneva (showing Lac Léman, Genfersee or Lake Geneva, not Lake Lucerne) (1849) includes some people and the distinctive sailing boats of the Swiss lakes, and one small bird in the shallows.

Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Lucerne) (1849), media not known, 194 x 260.5 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Vierwaldstättersee (1849) is an elevated view of Lake Lucerne again with the mountains beyond.


Alberto de Andrés (2006) Alpine Views, Alexandre Calame and the Swiss Landscape, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 12138 4.