In 1802, aged twenty-seven, Turner seized the opportunity created by the Peace of Amiens to travel to France. But unlike most of his compatriots, instead of remaining in Paris, among the appropriated splendors gathered in the Louvre, he and his companion Newbey Lowson audaciously pressed further south through the politically unstable country to make a tour of the Alps. Their route curled through the province of Savoy and around Mont Blanc, passing down into the Val d’Aosta, before crossing the Great St Bernard Pass into Switzerland, where they visited Lausanne, Berne, Thun, Brienz, Lucerne, with a brief excursion to the St Gothard. After reaching Zurich they headed north once more to return to Paris. Despite Turner’s experience of British mountain scenery in the preceding years, the tour was truly transformative. He filled eight sketchbooks during the journey, recording impressions and scenes that continued to provide inspiration more than twenty years later.
This watercolor has been dated to the years between 1807-09, and has its origins in an elaborate, partly-colored composition study Turner made in the largest volume he was carrying, known as the St Gothard and Mont Blanc sketchbook (Tate D04603; Turner Bequest LXXV 11). It was one of four sketches he made at the villages of St Martin and Sallanches, on the route along the Arve valley between Bonneville and Chamonix, suggesting that he and Lowson interrupted their progress to stay the night. One of the other sketches was made from the rocks beside La Sallanche, a tributary of the Arve, looking across the water in a north-westerly direction to the village itself (Tate D04604; Turner Bequest LXXV 12). It offers a more enclosed viewpoint of the pastoral setting and alpine life, and a contrast to the sublimely epic scale of the view in the opposite direction, up the Arve towards Mont Blanc, in the other sketch.
It was for this prospect, the first clear view of the Mont Blanc massif for many south-bound travellers, that Sallanches became popular with nineteenth century visitors. So it was not surprising that Turner was commissioned to produce watercolors of the subjects in both sketches. While the finished watercolor of the village scene is documented as having been requested by Turner’s foremost patron, the Yorkshireman Walter Fawkes (private collection; Wilton 380), it is not clear whether he also owned the present watercolor, which would have made a natural pendent. A drawing, entitled ‘Near Sallenches, Mont Blanc’ was sold at Christie’s on 14 May 1881 from the C.S. Bale collection, but it is listed with smaller dimensions, and may have been one of Turner’s early copies of views by Cozens or some other artist (R. Graves, Art Sales, p. 236).
When sketching the Mont Blanc subject on the spot Turner very deliberately structured his composition using the group of trees to provide a screen that draws the eye away from the foreground flock and their lush pastures beyond, guiding it up to the pure white snowy peaks of the mountain. He had used a similar idea for one of the designs he created in Scotland the previous year (Tate D03435; TB LVIII 56), and both are implicitly indebted to Rembrandt’s celebrated etching The Three Trees (1643), which Turner went on to praise in his lectures at the Royal Academy as Professor of Perspective.
We are grateful to Ian Warrell for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.