The rise of mountaineering

The rise of mountaineering

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Title: Ascension of the Matterhorn.

Author : DORE Gustave (1832 - 1883)

Creation date : 1865

Date shown: July 14, 1865

Dimensions: Height 79.5 - Width 59.5

Technique and other indications: Gouache, Indian ink wash, pen

Storage location: Louvre Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot website

Picture reference: 00-031250 / RF29946

Ascension of the Matterhorn.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

Publication date: March 2007

Historical context

The second big date in mountaineering

The invention of mountaineering dates back to the end of the 18th centurye century. This sporting practice is that of the first "tourists", these rich Englishmen discovering Europe through the Grand Tour of a number of historical, cultural or artistic sites. However, mythical peaks remain while the XIXe century advances. Its rise, seventy-nine years later, is the work of a seasoned European team made up of English, Swiss and French.

The Englishman Edward Whymper is one of the legendary pioneers in the genesis of mountaineering. The latter foreshadows the current athletes who follow the climbs: the previous week, he climbed Mont Blanc in four and a half hours. After an hour's break, the roped party sets out again, and it is during the descent by the north ridge that the tragedy occurs: Douglas Robert Hadow, second behind Croz, takes a false step and leads the first of the roped party, Hudson and Douglas in the abyss for a fall of 1,200 meters. Both Taugwalder and Whymper are saved because the rope has given way under the weight of the four men.

Image Analysis

A triumph loaded with dire signs

During his relatively short existence, Gustave Doré (1833-1883) discovered a passionate love for the mountains. An enthusiastic mountaineer, he sketched mountainous landscapes during his hikes in Spain, Scotland and the Alps. He visited Switzerland more than twelve times between 1853 and 1881. While staying in Zermatt at the end of 1865, he produced two associated works: The Ascension of the Matterhorn and The Matterhorn Disaster; the fall. The first drawing, one of the few with a vertex, was done in pen, India ink wash, and gouache. It represents reaching the summit in the early afternoon of July 14. The artist is here in the narrative interpretation more than in an exact topographical description.

The seven men, however reduced to the size of insects, triumph over the formidable gigantism of the mountain. This work is ordered according to a pyramidal construction, of which the summit of the Matterhorn constitutes the main part. It is made up of very dark planes following one another until the pyramidion reached by the rope. On the left, the vertiginous cliff opens onto a gaping void. In the background is a lower massif with its glaciers and snowfields. The sky, cloudy and upset, the contrasts of light, recall the hardness of the ascent, the oppressive threat of nature in the face of human daring. This sinister theme is illustrated at the bottom of the painting by large-scale and ominous birds of prey, driven from their grounds by the irruption of climbers.

Just silhouetted at the top, the seven seasoned mountain dwellers raise to the sky these long curved sticks that are then the ice axes. The head of the party is enthusiastic while the last ones are still in the effort of the last meters of ascent. Contrasting with the disturbing character of the whole, the human element reveals, even in a very small dimension, the euphoria, the jubilation of men triumphing over the hostile element.


The conquest of new spaces, bourgeois practice and popular craze for news items

Until the XVIIIe century, the relationship of Europeans to nature means that certain territories are considered as deserts, repulsive spaces. Insufficient agricultural yields lead to the maximum extension of cultivated land. The mountains themselves are covered with fields as long as the annual snow cover and slope permit. In summer, the villagers take the passes to go shopping or participate in festivals in the neighboring valleys. No one then bothered to reach the ridges and summits of the rugged massifs.

The profound economic and social upheavals engendered by the industrial age are leading to new behaviors. They first appear in the British bourgeoisie, the first beneficiary of this revolution it led and which also influences the taste for wild spaces born from romantic feelings. The fascination that the power of the elements exerts on Doré makes him one of the representatives of this sensitivity.

Like the "empty territories", the coasts, described by Alain Corbin, these "upper territories" are little by little traveled by tourists, hikers and mountaineers, who have recourse to men of experience. The movement is launched. Zermatt quickly became one of the "hot spots" of mountaineering. After the summits of their continent, the Europeans and more particularly the Anglo-Saxons conquered all the mountains of the world.

If the alpinist conquest is the work of an economic and social elite, it is not, however, confidential. The second half of the XIXe century saw the emergence of popular media with the decline in newspaper prices and advances in the dissemination of information. With England at the forefront of these developments, as a country still ahead in the economic, social and cultural processes associated with the industrial age, it is logically the Times that Whymper reserves the exclusivity of his story. His report appeared on December 8, 1865 and went around the world, picked up by many popular newspapers with a large circulation whose readership was delighted by this story of triumph and disaster. It takes place among the most famous news items of this time.

  • mountaineering
  • sport
  • Mountain
  • tourism


Claire-Éliane ENGEL, History of mountaineering, from its origins to the present day, Paris, Éd. "I serve", 1950.William HAUPTMAN, Sublime Switzerland seen by traveling painters, 1770-1914, Lugano-Milan, Thyssen-Bornemisza-Ed Foundation. Electa, 1991. Paul VEYNE, "L’alpinisme, une invention de la bourgeoisie, in L’Histoire n ° 11, 1979.

To cite this article

Bernard COLOMB, "The rise of mountaineering"

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