Think of Switzerland and you see mountains and lakes, alpine meadows and snow-capped peaks. This weekend we’ll stay low and look at a small selection of paintings of some of the best-known Swiss lakes. This article covers the largest and most accessible, Lake Geneva, also known as Lac Léman. Tomorrow’s article completes those and moves on to Lake Lucerne before concluding with a brief visit to Lake Thun.
Lake Geneva is the largest in Switzerland, and is located in the far south-west, forming part of the border with France. It makes a broad arc running north-east from the capital city of Geneva, with some of the highest peaks of the Alps to the south.
JMW Turner was by no means the first to paint the lake, but his watercolour of Lake Geneva and Mount Blanc from 1802-05 is one of its earliest depictions by a major artist. This view looks south-east over the city of Geneva towards the Mont Blanc massif in the far distance.
While Turner toured the Alps once travel from England had become possible again in the early nineteenth century, the Swiss artist Alexandre Calame pioneered the painting of views like this of the lake, completed in his studio in 1849. It includes some of the distinctive sailing boats of the Swiss lakes, and a small bird in the shallows.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, several major American painters visited Switzerland to develop their skills painting mountain views. Despite its finish, John Ferguson Weir’s Lake Leman (Lake Geneva), Switzerland (1869) may have been painted in front of the motif, on 11 June 1869.
Following Gustave Courbet’s release from prison for his involvement in the Paris Commune and destruction of the Vendôme Column in 1871, he was forced to flee to the safety of Switzerland, where he lived his remaining years there, unable to return to France.
Courbet painted some of the finest landscapes of his career during his exile in Switzerland, like this Sunset over Lac Leman from 1874, the year of the First Impressionist Exhibition in Paris.
He became particularly obsessed with the island château at the eastern end of Lake Geneva, Chillon Castle, here in 1875. This picturesque château dates back to a Roman outpost, and for much of its recorded history from about 1050 has controlled the road from Burgundy to the Great Saint Bernard Pass, a point of strategic significance. It has since been extensively restored, and is now one of the most visited mediaeval castles in Europe.
Chillon Castle from 1874-77 is another of the views he painted of the castle on the lake.
Sunset on Lake Geneva from about 1876 is reminiscent of Courbet’s earlier seascapes with breaking waves, but now the water is calm once more.
In May 1877, the French government informed Courbet that the cost of rebuilding the Vendôme Column would be over 300,000 Francs, which he could pay in installments of 10,000 Francs each year, starting on 1 January 1878. Courbet died in Switzerland on 31 December 1877, the day before, at the age of only 58.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the great Swiss artist Ferdinand Hodler started to paint a series of views from the northern shore of Lake Geneva looking south, across to the major peaks of the Chablais Alps. He was to continue this series until his death twenty years later. Lake Geneva from Chexbres from about 1898 shows one of the first of these, painted near the village of Chexbres in early winter.
Lake Geneva from Saint-Prex (1901) is another view across the lake, from a town further west of Chexbres, looking south with a closer view of the peaks of the Chablais Alps. This appears to have been painted in the summer, with the trees in full leaf and a rich range of flowers. The clouds over the mountains are starting to become more organised in a regular rhythm, a trend which resulted in some of his most distinctive later landscapes.
The Grammont (1905) shows this mountain in the Chablais Alps, to the south of the eastern end of Lake Geneva, towards which many of Hodler’s favourite views over that lake were aimed. Again he uses a limited palette; the lake itself reminds me of Gustav Klimt’s wonderful paintings of Attersee from a few years earlier, although Hodler’s darker blue ripples quickly vanish as the lake recedes from the viewer.
The following year, he painted Landscape at Lake Geneva.
One of the clearest examples of Hodler’s distinctive Parallelist landscapes is his Rhythmic Landscape on Lake Geneva from 1908. This was a second version of a view he had previously painted in 1905, when he wrote “This is perhaps the landscape in which I applied my compositional principles most felicitously.”
Most of his symmetry and rhythm is obvious; what may not be so apparent are the idiosyncratic reflections seen on the lake’s surface. The gaps in the train of cumulus clouds here become dark blue pillars, which are optically impossible, but are responsible for much of the rhythm in the lower half of the painting.