Mount Chimborazo, circa 1865
oil on canvas
The son of a prosperous confectioner of Huguenot descent, Louis Rémy Mignot was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. From 1851 through 1854, he studied in The Hague—with the Dutch landscape painter, Andreas Schelfhout (1787–1870). Settling in New York on his return, he moved into the new Tenth Street Studio Building, where he became acquainted with Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Frederic Church (1826–1900), and Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904). Like these artists, he focused on landscape, finding subjects in the White Mountains, the Hudson River Valley, and on travels in Maryland and Virginia. In 1857, he accompanied Church on a four-month trip to Ecuador (Church’s second trip to the region), which provided him with subject matter he would depict for the next thirteen years. Due to his Southern heritage, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Mignot was uncomfortable with anti-Confederate sentiments in the North. After holding a sale of his work in 1862 at Schaus’s Gallery, New York, he set out for India. However, he did not go beyond England, where he remained until his death from a smallpox infection when he was only thirty-nine.
Whereas in his South American imagery, Church sought to illustrate geological and scientific truths, providing evidence of divine forces in nature in detailed depictions of grandiose sites, Mignot took a more romantic approach. Often featuring scenes in the soft glow of dawn, he used a painterly style featuring blurred edges and softened forms to create evocative, serene, and poetic images. It was on the road between Quito and Riobamba (the capital of the Chimborazo province) that the two artists caught sight of Mount Chimborazo, along with other impressive peaks in the Andes, including Cayambe and Cotopaxi. In 1859, Mignot depicted a view of Chimborazo from Riobamba with the townscape stretching below the looming white peak—described by Símon Bolivar (1783–1830) as “the watchtower of the universe.” Mignot created the depiction of Chimborazo in the museum’s collection in about 1866, when he was living in England. In the work, mist suffuses the scene so that the peak appears to float above the clouds while the partial shimmer of rainbow is suggestively at the right. At the center of the work, two figures and animals come forward through dense foliage that spreads across the table land. Mignot’s rich tonal blending and surface energy suggests the influence on him in England of the work of the British romantic painter J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851).
Mignot exhibited this painting in the spring of 1866 at the British Institution in London, where it was among the largest and most expensive works in the exhibition. A reviewer stated: “The landscapes on this occasion have more than the ordinary share of interest. Among them none are, on the whole, so varied in range of power, or beautiful and refined in style, as the contributions of Mr. Mignot." Another article noted: “The lofty plateau stretches away as far as the eye can reach, its sandy surface broken into countless mounded waves, crested with stunted vegetation.” Other critics described the painting as “stupendous,” “mighty,” and “fiery." In the summer and fall of 1869, Mignot sent the work to the Opera House Gallery in Chicago, where a critic noted that it was “brilliantly lit by gas.” The critic stated: “from a glimpse of it we are prepared to say that it is a masterpiece of art, and moreover, of a character that will be popular with every spectator, whether an art connoisseur or not.” Perhaps Mignot intended the work as a response to the end of the Civil War, in an image of vast terrain under the solitary peak from which light is spreading gradually downward to relieve the land of the dark shadows that are still present in the foreground.