An experienced and well-known climber, landscape painter of the high mountains and in his later years a photographer, Gabriel Loppé (1825-1913) used a restrained palette to depict the grandiose nature of the summits, tortured glaciers with gaping crevasses and the flamboyant sunsets which he captured from the summit of the “great monarch” – the mont Blanc- up in the world of sharp needle-like mountains and other spectacular panoramas.
Together with Monet and Courbet, Loppé was also a precursor and innovator in painting wintry and snowy landscapes. Through his paintings, photographs, and drawings, we can follow the artist and also the man as he travelled through a rapidly changing world, ever alert to the numerous technical innovations of his time. As a consequence of his pioneering photographs Loppé was one of the first consumers and recorders of steam trains and the ‘electric fairy’ that transformed urban life.
Gabriel Loppé was an ambassador for the Chamonix Valley thanks to his paintings which were testimonies of his time but also thanks to his role within the Alpine Club in London.
Gabriel Loppé discovered Chamonix in 1849. He stayed there regularly until 1912.
In 1849, when Loppé was 24 years old, he stayed in Fillinges, near la Roche-sur-Foron from where he walked with a bag and a stick to Servoz to spend the night and then left the next day for Chamonix. He even made his way to the Mer de Glace and in so doing he first came across Chamonix.
During his time in Fillinges he spent time with the children of an old family there, the Bachets. The following year he returned to Annecy and took them up to Chamonix and the Mer de Glace.
He married Marguerite Bachet in 1851 and they settled in Annecy for about ten years.
From 1851, Loppé would spend every summer in Chamonix.
In 1869 in Chamonix, he started out by renting a plot of land on which he constructed a small chalet to use as his studio. In 1870, despite limited financial resources, he decided to build another chalet where he opened an exhibition gallery calling it “Peinture Alpestre Gabriel Loppé”.
During his lifetime, he exhibited each summer about sixty paintings there, some of them with monumental dimensions (4m high x 3m wide). The gallery became the ‘Loppé Museum’ when his grand-daughter Gabrielle inherited it in 1925. Some ‘Chamoniards’ still remember this old lady lovingly preserving this house full of her grandfather’s paintings.
After the latter’s death in 1978, the museum was sold and transformed into a residence.
A local association, Les Amis du Vieux Chamonix, conscious of their value managed to buy and secure about forty paintings. Some of these acquisitions can now be admired in the reception rooms at Le Majestic (the former Palace located in the centre of Chamonix.)
However, the majority of these pictures are in storage and since the fire in 1999 which ravaged Chamonix’s Alpine Museum, they await a dedicated exhibition space. The blaze destroyed the Michel Croz concert hall as well as the exhibition hall devoted to Loppé. This wing in the Alpine Museum has never been rebuilt, in order to keep the view open onto the banks of river Arve next to the museum.
Every summer, Loppé returned to Chamonix and stayed there regularly until 1912.
There are many sentimental ties too linking him to Chamonix. His last daughter, Marie was born there on August 7, 1865.
His first wife, who died in Geneva on January 12, 1874, is buried in the Chamonix cemetery. He remained close friends with the Chamoniards such as the Tairraz family, the the famous photographers and François Couttet called «Baguette» whom he encouraged to enlarge his house and rent rooms, which is how the Hotel Couttet started out.
His favourite guide was his beloved Benoît Simond, nicknamed “Benoni”.
During those first sojourns in Chamonix, the tourists were mainly English from the upper-middle classes and aristocracy. Gabriel Loppé befriended some of them including the writer and preeminent mountaineer Leslie Stephen, father of the writer Virginia Woolf, the lawyer and High Court judge, Alfred Wills, the cartographer Adams Reilly, and the geologist James Eccles whose sister, Elizabeth, called Bessie, Loppé married in 1879.
Even if he regularly visited Zermatt to paint the Matterhorn (le Cervin), it was the icy domain of Chamonix’s valley that he chose to represent the most. He was fascinated by le mont Blanc (which he was supposed to have climbed about forty times, probably less in reality).
This Massif offered him, more than any other place, a landscape governed by glaciers. Each ascent was an opportunity for drawings, ‘pochades’ or oil paintings on the motif.
On his way up mont Blanc, he would spend several days drawing and painting at the Cabane des Grands Mulets or at the Col du Géant. He was always profoundly drawn to and moved by the powerful meteorological variations and their atmospheres.
These high-altitude pictures were first exhibited in 1862 at the Universal Exposition in London. The English press were praiseworthy, especially as to how he captured the extraordinary atmosphere of the Mont-Blanc massif.
Although Loppé first encountered the world of glaciers in 1846 via Switzerland’s Grimsel Pass, when he was 21, it was in Chamonix where he began to conquer the high peaks.
In 1853 he and his wife stayed at the Hôtel de la Couronne and ascended the
Grands Mulets during the day on July 19. They were accompanied by the Payot guides,
François Romain and François Florentin.
The first hut at the Grands Mulets (3050 metres) was built in 1853 on rocks above where the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers meet. It was a log cabin with dry stone walls measuring 4.25m x 2.12 m.
On July 23rd 1861, he made his first ascent of mont Blanc, accompanying the Bisson brothers, then the official photographers to the Emperor Napoleon III.
Returning to the Grands Mulets Hut, which would over time become a sort of second home for him, Loppé met another party of climbers on their way up mont Blanc and joined in, returning there on that same summer of 1861 on 25th July, and again on 13th August.
A drawing dated 24 July 1861 attests to this stay at the Grands Mulets Hut.
In 1871 he made the first ascent of Mount Mallet (3,989m) with Leslie Stephen and Frederich Wallroth.
In 1876, on January 19, he attempted the first winter ascent of mont Blanc with
James Eccles, but on was beaten to it on January 30th by the American Isabella Straton.
On March 3rd that year Loppé and Eccles completed the feat.
Loppé made a number of first ascents and was an accredited and recognized climber even if he preferred to boast of the talents and courage of his guides.
In 1864 the Alpine Club of London gave him the rare accolade of admitting him as an honorary member.
In 1865, he became a member of the Swiss Alpine Club, Geneva section for Monta Rosa.
From 1875, when the French Alpine Club was created, he joined the Paris section.
In 1865, Loppé met the prefect (le Préfet) for the Haute-Savoie to explain and lobby him as to how the rules of the Chamonix guides Company (‘La Compagnie des Guides’) had to change and move with the times.
In 1870, during the terrible accident of 15th September on mont Blanc which killed 11 people, Loppé got involved by getting any information to the bereaved families in Chamonix and helping establish an emergency fund (Caisse de Secours’). Ever active, he campaigned to improve the condition of the guides and corresponded with the Alpine Club in London on the matter. He never hesitated to go and rescue mountaineers in difficulty or the victims of an accident and often instigated subscriptions to help families affected by these tragedies.
Nevertheless, his exploits in the Alps were not his principal motivation, it was much more his painting, since he never set off into the mountains without his palette and brushes, always ready to catch a sunrise or sunset, or a cloud phenomena. He would sometimes wait for several hours to get the perfect light, without ever seemingly bothered by the cold much to the great displeasure of the guides and porters who accompanied him. He could spend days in very high mountain spots such as a week at the Col du Géant or at the Grands Mulets, or a bivouac on the Montagne de la Côte, between the glaciers of Bossons and Taconnaz.
Gabriel Loppé had found a willing clientele, many of them climbers and especially the English, but his pictures ended up in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and as far afield as the United States. When he started painting the valleys of Chamonix and showing his pictures in London, the English climbers, fond of Scotland up until then, were delighted to learn about Chamonix and how it looked under snow. Loppé encouraged them to start visiting during the winter months as well as the summer for walking and mountaineering.
At that time, the Mont-Blanc massif was not yet fully mapped. Photography was not advanced enough to help climbers in their preparations and these pictures done with such topographical precision were instrumental in their reconnaissance aspect.
For twenty-first century visitors today, these canvases are a record of the valleys, images that are even more precious considering the transformations now underway.
Loppé’s character and artistic legacy has had an enormous impact on the territory of
the valley and has contributed to the enrichment of Chamonix’s heritage.