Painters in the peaks
The mountains still win over collectors and amateurs looking to capture a familiar landscape, a vividly memorable climb, or the atmosphere of a special trip. In France there are auctions in Paris, Lyon, Grenoble, Chambéry, and on a few rare websites specialised in the sale of alpine paintings. As part of the 120th anniversary of the French Mountain Painters Society, we tried to discover if alpine art was still so popular, and why…
Alpine paintings attract a following of enthusiasts who know the mountains through sport, living there, having roots, or owning a second home. The currently trend is for works representing recognisable, precise peaks. “Just because there is a mountain in the frame doesn’t mean it is an alpine painting. There has to be a clearly identi ed mountain; an imaginary one doesn’t count. It’s very speci c. Only people who love the mountains are really interested in alpine paintings,” says auctioneer Pierre Blanchet, who organises two sales of alpine paintings every year in Paris.
The cover of the catalogue published by his company for the auction on 20 December 2017 at the Hôtel Drouot featured the Église du Tour in Chamonix covered with snow, painted by Charles Henri Contencin (1898-1955). A setting rarely portrayed in a painting – a characteristic that can have a huge positive impact on the price of a piece. Estimated at €5,000/€6,000 euros, the painting on oil (46 x 55 cm) was sold for €23,940€ at the auction. “Contencin’s paintings are selling for more than ten years ago, but for less than four or ve years ago. He was one of the leading mountain painters, and is among those who sell the best in France along with Angelo Abrate, Marcel Wibault, Joseph Communal, Francis Cari a, Lucien Poignant, Albert Doran, and Samivel, whose poetic watercolours are highly sought-after. All these painters are from the 20th and 21st centuries,” says the auctioneer. At the last event hosted by Montagne de Banchet et Associés, an oil painting on panel by Contencin, Le Lac Blanc et l’Aiguille Verte, rst exhibited in 1935, was sold for €6,150. Another, Neige à Zmutt (environ de Zermatt), went for €6,600. Soir sur la Jungfrau (Wengen), sold for €6,000€. But Samivel surged ahead in 2018 with the watercolour Jeux de lumière au soleil levant. Dômes de Miages vus de l’Aig. N de Tre-la-Tête, which sold for €11,000 in April, followed by Travaux d’Aiguille for €17,000 in December.
Old paintings are not as popular, with the exception of Gabriel Loppé (19th century), and it is rare to nd any at auction. “Paintings from the 19th century are often sad, dark and dull, and so less sought-after. Aside from Gabriel Loppé, there are almost no leading 19th-century mountain painters. Among the 18th- century artists, engravings by Swiss artist Jean-Antoine Linck depicting the Mer de Glace and paintings from the English school sell for the highest,” says Blanchet. By way of proof, a watercolour from this period was sold in December 2018 for €7,600. Abroad, Austrian artist Alfons Walde is the highest-selling 20th-century mountain painter, but his works are rarely seen in France. Blanchet had the chance to sell one a few years ago. His clients had acquired it at a garage sale for a few dozen euros without having the faintest idea of its value. Much to their surprise, the painting was sold for €160,000.
What are collectors looking for? Many hope to rediscover very speci c settings such as chalets in Saint-Nicolas-de-Véroce with a view over the Dômes de Miage and the Aiguille de Bionnassay, as reproduced by Abrate, or the Frendo overhang at the Aiguille du Midi painted by Marcel Wibault. The settings are generally in the French, Italian or Swiss Alps, with easily identi able subjects such as the Aiguilles de Chamonix, Mont Blanc, Cervin, and high- altitude lakes. Alpine art enthusiasts are also very interested in portrayals of rarely painted mountains. Works featuring snow are the most popular, especially those with an original perspective. A lesser-known or lesser-seen peak o ers real added value.
The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for mountain painters. Artists captured the light and moment perfectly, drawing inspiration from Gabriel Loppé. If you look closely at the paintings by Contencin, you will see fantastical skies and extraordinary light on the snow painted using subtle shades.
Auctioneer Pierre Blanchet was the rst person to organise events focused exclusively on alpine paintings, and still remembers an auction when a man stood up and said: “This painting does not show the west face of the mountain, but the east. I live next to it, and that is the view from my house.” Clearly there is no room for error in alpine topography! At every auction, the expert knows he will be hosting mountain enthusiasts and connoisseurs including locals, mountaineers, skiers, and other enthusiasts of this unique setting. They see alpine paintings as an intimate portrayal of their memories in these high-altitude regions. When some people fall for a valley or a village and acquire a residence there, they often buy old paintings that conjure up certain seasons or peaks that are part of local memory.
If you have a mountain painting in your loft or garage, now may be a good time to take a better look at it. Thanks to the internet, it is easy to nd out the popularity of a painting and estimate its value.