Eugène Emmanuel VIOLLET-LE-DUC (Paris 1814 - Lausanne 1879)

The Artist Sketching While Trapped in a Crevasse Sold

Watercolour heightened with gouache.
Signed E Viollet le Duc at the lower left and indistinctly dated 11 juill. 70 at the lower right.
229 x 133 mm. (9 x 5 1/4 in.)


Viollet-le-Duc had a lifelong interest in the mountains and glaciers of the French and Swiss Alps. Beginning in 1868, and in particular between 1871 and 1876, he spent many weeks climbing and hiking on the Mont Blanc massif. As has been noted of the artist, ‘mountaineering counted among his greatest pleasures, a form of physical and mental exercise that grew compulsive by the late 1870s. Above all, he took refuge in the mountains to liberate himself from the claustrophobic Parisian scene.’ Viollet-le-Duc’s studies of alpine topography and geology culminated in the publication in 1876 of his magisterial book, Le massif de Mont Blanc. He was also a highly accomplished painter of mountain scenes and produced numerous drawings and watercolours of alpine subjects. In his book Histoire d’un dessinateur, published in 1879, he devoted an entire chapter to a description of a sketching tour in the Alps, with a detailed description of rock formations, ice and snow.

This fascinating watercolour, which is dated ‘11 juill. 70’, would appear to record an accident that befell Viollet-le-Duc on that day, while on the Schwartzberg glacier in the canton of Valais in Switzerland, part of the Mont Blanc massif. On the morning of the 11th of July 1870, he was on a trek, accompanied by a guide, when he suddenly fell into a deep glacial crevasse. As he recalled, in an account of the incident published eight years later, ‘“Crevasse de fond”, I said to myself in the second that followed the collapse of the crust of snow, “I am lost!”. Indeed, in this brief space of time, seeing only the blue wall of ice, I could tell that I was falling into one of those transversal glacial crevices that run all the way down to the valley line or thereabout.’

Fortunately, his fall was broken by a rope with which he was attached to his guide, Baptiste, and the artist found himself dangling in mid-air two or three metres below the mouth of the crevasse: ‘The place where I was suspended was admirably beautiful; smooth walls of ice, azure and green. I was in a sepulchre of aquamarine and sapphire whose sides plunged toward an unfathomable depth of deep blue, and then black. My first impression was that I could not have chosen a more splendid tomb. My guide was not saying a word; I just sensed the efforts he was making to bring me back to the mouth of the crevice. ‘Eh?”, I said to him, “I am a dead man!”.’

As Baptiste’s attempt to haul the artist back to the surface were proving ineffectual, Viollet-le-Duc decided to cut the rope to free the guide, who would likely freeze to death otherwise: ‘I pull out my knife and shouted: “I am cutting the rope!”...and then I fell into the abyss along the smooth wall of the crevice. How is it possible that instead of falling vertically to the bottom of this admirable sepulchre, following the law of gravity, I obliquely slid upon a slightly undulated ice surface? I do not know. The fact is that, at a depth of approximately twelve meters, I was extremely surprised to find myself sitting legs up, American style, on a piece of ice held, thanks to a narrowing of the crevice, at approximately five metres to the left of the point I was before.’4 The artist remained in this position deep within the crevasse for three and a half hours, before Baptiste was able to return from the village of Mattmark with four strong men and a length of rope, and pull him to safety. As Martin Bressani notes, however, Viollet-le-Duc ‘had put to good use the time spent in the bosom of the glacier, calmly making a series of drawn observations on the phenomena of the regelation and exudation of the glacier mass that he later consigned in a separate chapter of Le massif du Mont Blanc.’

Among stylistically comparable works by Viollet-le-Duc are two watercolour and gouache drawings of Above the Grands-Mulets and An Avalanche, both of 1869, in the collection of the Musée Lambinet in Versailles. Other, similar watercolours of alpine subjects include views of The Tré-la-Tête Glacier, in the collection of the Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine in Charenton-le-Pont, and an unidentifed alpine view, dated September 1879, in the Viollet-le-Duc archives in Neuilly.

Galerie du Luxembourg, Paris.

Eugène Emmanuel VIOLLET-LE-DUC

The Artist Sketching While Trapped in a Crevasse


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