Philip James De Loutherbourg

An Avalanche in the Alps


Not on display
Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740–1812
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1099 x 1600 mm
frame: 1562 x 2052 x 175 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1965

Display caption

The Alps were a familiar landscape

for generations of British travellers, but it was only in the later part of the eighteenth century that their rugged and immense qualities were appreciated for their Sublime

associations. Here de Loutherbourg, who specialised in such landscapes, adds human drama to the avalanche’s awesome progress via the terrified people (foreground) soon to be overwhelmed by nature’s power. De Loutherbourg’s exploration of sublime effect was assisted by his work as a theatre set designer. He also created the ‘Eidophusikon’, a miniature theatre where landscapes were animated and accompanied by music and sound effects.

Gallery label, March 2010

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Catalogue entry

Philip James de Loutherbourg 1740–1812

T00772 An Avalanche in the Alps, Near the Scheideck, in the Valley of Lauterbrunnen 1803

Inscr. ‘P. I. de Loutherbourg R. A. 1803’ b.l.
Oil on canvas, 43¼ x 63 (110 x 160), on stretcher 43¾ x 63¾ (111 x 161.5).
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1965.
Coll: Sir John Fleming Leicester, later Lord de Tabley, by 1819, sold Christie’s, 7 July 1827 (28), bt. Peacock; Daubeney; Mrs. Fitzhugh, sold Christie’s, 22 May 1843 (83), bt. Norton; bt. by Mr. Eckford for John, 2nd Lord Northwick, 1854, sold Phillips at Thirlestane House, 12 August 1859 (1180), bt. in by George, 3rd Lord North- wick; his widow 1887; her grandson, Capt. E. G. Spencer-Churchill 1912, sold Christie’s, 25 June 1965 (88), bt. Wells for Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, Virginia, but export licence withheld; bt. Friends of the Tate Gallery.
Exh: R. A., 1804 (116).
Lit: William Carey, A Descriptive Catalogue of a Collection of Paintings by British Artists, in the Possession of Sir John Fleming Leicester, Bart., 1819, pp. 35–7, No. 35; John Young, A Catalogue of Pictures by British Artists, in the Possession of Sir John Fleming Leicester, Bart.., 1825, p. 16, No. 35, engr.; A Catalogue of Pictures, Works of Art, etc. at Northwick Park, 1864, reprinted 1908, p. 17, No. 102; T. Borenius and L. Cust, Catalogue of the Collection of Pictures at Northwick Park, 1921, p. 109, No. 254.

The undated Avalanche by de Loutherbourg at Petworth has also been identified with the work exhibited at the R.A. in 1804 (C. H. Collins Baker, Catalogue of the Petworth Collection, 1920, p. 80, and exh. cat., The First Hundred Years of the Royal Academy 1769–1868, R.A., Winter 1951–2, p. 167, No. 423; repr. Illustrated Souvenir, p. 53), but this seems to be an earlier, less precisely realised composition.

According to Sir Richard Colt Hoare, in a contribution to William Carey’s Catalogue of the Leicester Collection (1819, loc. cit.), ‘In this striking picture we behold with astonishment, and a certain degree of terror, one of those great convulsions of nature, which the Alpine regions of Switzerland continually present on the melting of the snow, and of which no painter, but a native, could have given an adequate idea’. After a detailed description he continues, ‘Such is the terrific scene here represented! A scene, which both on account of the affecting grandeur of its subject, as well as of the superior merit of its execution, must ever arrest the attention both of the connoisseur and the artist. The powerful effect of light and shadow is well managed; the chief light being kept upon the descending snow in the centre of the picture; and all the grand and local accompaniments harmonize in their shadows and half tints.’

De Loutherbourg was not in fact Swiss but was born in Germany of Polish origins and trained in Paris, settling in London in 1771. He seems to have visited Switzerland c. 1769–71, again in 1787 with Cagliostro, and perhaps in 1802–3 in the short period of peace following the Treaty of Amiens.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1965–1966, London 1967.

Film and audio

An Avalanche in the Alps by Philip James De Loutherbourg

Johno Verity is an avalanche survivor, who talks compelling about his terrifying experience and the way that the artist manages ...


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