Mont Blanc, 1853
oil on canvas, School of Mining, Paris
Claude Sebastian Hugard de la Tour created ten paintings for the School of Mining’s grand staircase that leads visitors into a rock and mineral museum. Completed over a seven-year period (1852–59), the series was commissioned by the Inspector General of Mines, who believed that the artworks should reflect Earth’s natural processes to visually complement the institution’s classes.
Only the most remarkable geological sites known at the time were represented, and the project’s crown jewel was Mont Blanc. To execute this painting, Hugard was required to visit the sites first studied by the geologists Horace-Benedict de Saussure (Swiss, 1740-1799) and Ramond de Carbonnières (French, 1775–1827).
Hugard’s perspective of Mont Blanc, studied from neighboring Mont Cramont, was described by Saussure in his Voyages in the Alps as the best point from which to appreciate the mountain’s structure. The artist climbed to the summit—9,600 feet (2,926 m) in elevation—to sketch the scientist’s recommended vantage point. Hugard confronts the mountain’s tectonic upheaval, which becomes the focal point of his composition.
Rather than include the valley of Chamonix as other artists before him had done, Hugard dramatically isolates the peak in this unique interpretation. He painstakingly depicts the rocky promontories and glaciers that contribute to the mountain’s magisterial appearance. Mount Blanc’s north face, heavily laden with glaciers, meets the barren, rocky slope of its southern flank. The startling contrast between these two sides was one reason why Saussure favored this view.