The “Splendid Mountain Sketchbook” is a collection of watercolours & sketches that John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) produced, in 1870 whilst on a summer excursion to Switzerland’s Bernese Alps in the Berner Oberland. The sketchbook contains 60 leaves, including 14 watercolors and 47 crayon or graphite studies of mountains, landscapes and people he encountered while traveling with his family.
In the summer of 1870, FitzWilliam Sargent and his wife Mary (nee Mary Newbold Singer – hence Singer Sargent) and after an unusually hot spring in Italy decided to their Florence home behind and escape the summer heat for a summer in Switzerland. Fitzwilliam & Mary had three children; John, Emily and the four-month-old infant Violet. On their way, the family stopped for a week in May to formally baptise Violet, the latest family member in Lake Maggiore. In search of the cool Bernese Highland temperatures, the family’s carriage crossed the St. Gotthard Pass and arrived on the shores of Flüelen’s Lake Lucerne on June 3rd 1870.
It was during a three-week trek with his father at the end of that June that the boy Sargent began work on his “splendid” sketchbook. After the mountain trek, father & son rejoined the family and spent the rest of that summer in the high alpine village of Mürren, where he continued to fill the book. Stylistically his childhood landscapes reflect the kind of techniques popularized in 19th-century art manuals, particularly those within John Ruskin’s “Elements of drawing.” However, the young artist, who lacked any formal art education, devised and developed his own, singular and more sophisticated techniques to render the mountains, snow, glaciers, ice, and mist.
As you can see here, this 14 year old boy was a natural, an artistic freak of nature.
Sargeant’s father FitzWilliam wrote a letter outlining the family itinerary:
“We crossed the St. Gotthardt to Fluelen — hence to Berne & Thun. From Thun, John and I, after incubating three weeks, hatched a three-weeks walk amongst the Mountains & Glaciers — going over the Gemmi to Zermatt, to the Riffelsberg to the Aggishorn, the Rhone Glacier, the Grimsel, Meiringen etc. etc. to Interlaken where we found the rest of the family.”
From Interlaken they made their way up to Lauterbrunnen, then further up the mountains to the high alpine village of Mürren. Sargent began his “chronological pictorial diary” on June 30, taking careful notes of dates and places visited. The family spent a month in Mürren. FitzWilliam wrote to his mother on a postcard depicting their chalet boarding house:
“We are … more than 5000 feet above the sea, — looking upon the Jungfrau and other snow-covered mountains “thick as blackberries”. The air is delicious, tonic and not too cold … the walks about Mürren … amongst pines, rocks, tumbling streams and waterfalls, looking across gorges amongst glaciers and mountains 12,000 feet high eternally covered with snow and ice, from which avalanches roll and thunder daily.”
After a month the family left Mürren, crossed over to Grindelwald to Mt. Pilatus and then down to Lucerne. By October the family were back home in Florence. That month John’s father wrote to his mother in America, “John seems to have a strong desire to be an artist … and we have concluded to gratify him and to keep that in plan in view of his studies.”