Alexandre Calame

Alexandre Calame (May 28, 1810 – Mar 19, 1864) was a Swiss painter.

He was born in Arabie at the time belonging to Corsier-sur-Vevey, today a part of Vevey. He was the son of a skillful marble worker in Vevey, but because his father lost the family fortune, Calame could not concentrate on art, but rather he was forced to work in a bank from the age of 15. When his father fell from a building and then died, it was up to the young Calame to provide for his mother.

In his spare time he began to practice drawing small views of Switzerland. In 1829 he met his patron, the banker Diodati, who made it possible for him to study under landscape painter François Diday. After a few months he decided to devote himself fully to art.

Alexandre Calame was born in 1810 at Vevey in the Swiss canton of Vaud in 1810, the son of a marble carver. In 1813 the family moved to Neuchâtel, then under Prussian government, where Calame spent his boyhood, marred by an accident in 1820 that cost him the sight of one eye. Following his father’s bankruptcy, the family settled in Geneva in 1824, where young Alexandre found employment as a bank clerk. The death of his father in 1826 left him, at sixteen, as his and his mother’s sole support. To supplement his income and to pay the debts left by his father, he colored engravings of Alpine views for the print trade. A kindly employer, sensing some talent in the boy, provided him with a small stipend that enabled him to take lessons in Geneva from the painter François Diday (í8o2-1877), a specialist in Alpine landscapes. From 1829 Calame began to produce watercolors of his own composition, and from 1830 his first, timid paintings in oil. Extremely hardworking, he made rapid progress. Married in 1834 to a musician, Amelie Muntz-Berger, a pupil of Franz Liszt, he first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1835 and in 1837 visited Paris, where he familiarized himself with the work of such contemporary landscape painters as Jules Dupré (1811-1889) and Théodore Rousseau (1812-1867).

In 1835 he began exhibiting his Swiss-Alps and forest paintings in Paris and Berlin. He became quite well known, especially in Germany, although Calame was more a drawer than an illustrator. He is associated with the Düsseldorf school of painting. In 1842 he went to Paris and displayed his works Mont Blanc, the Jungfrau, the Brienzersee, the Monte Rosa and Mont Cervin. He taught in Geneva, where Adolf Mosengel was one of his pupils.

In the summer of 1838 Calame traveled in Holland, gathering impressions at The Hague and in Amsterdam of the work of the great Dutch landscape painters, among whom Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/1629-1682) particularly affected him.

The following year, his Storm at Handeggfall, much noticed at the Paris Salon, won him a second-class gold medal. Hereafter Calame rapidly gained wide recognition, rising from a first-class gold medal at the Paris Salon of 1841 for View of the Valley of d’Asarca, and the purchase of this picture by King Louis-Philippe, to the award of the Legion of Honor for Storm-Beaten Oaks (Waldstetten) following the Salon of 1842. Students from all parts of Europe now began to flock to his studio. His tour of Italy, undertaken in 1843 with a retinue of his disciples, was immortalized by Rodolphe Toepffer in Voyage en zigzag (Paris, 1844), one of the classics of the romantic illustrated book.

He went to Italy in 1844 and brought back from Rome and Naples countless paintings, among them one of the ruins of Paestum (in the city museum in Leipzig). He showed that he was capable of understanding Italian nature; but the Alps remained his speciality.

By 1845 Calame was considered to have surpassed his teacher, Diday, in what was their shared speciality, grand Alpine views under stormy skies. Charles Baudelaire, in his review of the Salon of 1845, joked that once it had been thought that a single artist of split personality hid under the names of Diday and Calame, but since then “it was noted that he used the name Calame on the days when his painting went well.” The large exhibition pieces that spread Calame’s name throughout Europe were composed according to a scheme that called for foregrounds of rock, torrents, and windswept pines beyond which the view opened on distant vistas of towering mountains, a formulaic arrangement that he enlivened with sharply observed details taken from close nature study. Extensive voyages took him to England (1850), Germany and the Netherlands (1852), and the Mediterranean (1853).

An exhibitor at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1855, he was distinguished by Napoleon III who purchased his Lac des quatre cantons. Despite the provinciality of his milieu and the almost exclusively Swiss subject matter of his art, Calame achieved a surprising degree of international recognition, attested by his election to eight national academies and an abundant harvest of honors and decorations from the courts of Russia, Prussia, Belgium, and Holland; only the French critical press persisted in ignoring him. In the last years of his life, his productivity was taxed and his frail health strained by the many commissions that came to him from a large aristocratic and commercial clientele. Deeply religious, of taciturn and melancholy temperament, compulsively industrious, Calame suffered frequent illnesses and aged prematurely. A bout of pleurisy contributed to his death in 1864, in his fifty-fourth year, in Menton, France.

The glaciers, emerald-green, white foaming mountain water, which split the trees during the storm, and the whipped clouds, the multi-colored rocks, half masked from fog, in the rays of the gleaming sun, are those things, which he knew to be true to nature. We still call them the Handeckfall from Bernese upper country, in Tirol, Lake Lucerne, the forest tower (in the urban museum of Leipzig), the forest stream (Dresdener gallery) etc.

One of his most ingenious works is the representation of the four seasons and times of the day in four landscapes, a spring morning in the south, a summer midday in the Nordic flatlands, an Autumn evening, and a winter night on a mountain. He became popular with these large works, and his popularity grew with smaller pieces and lithographies, namely 18 studies of Lauterbrunnen and Meiringen and the 24 sheets of Alpine passes. These were widespread in France, England, and Germany and are still today used to teach this style of painting.

Calame became a correspondent of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands in 1850, he resigned the next year.

He died in Menton, France in 1864.

An exhibition featuring more than thirty of Calame’s paintings was held at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 2006.