Lionel Wibault has painted Mont Blanc in Chamonix 69 times. He started painting the tallest mountain in the Alps in 1990, and intends to create 100 paintings in total to capture the full 360-degree view of the mountain. He hopes to complete his project by 2021, in time for the 200th anniversary of Chamonix's historic La Compagnie des Guides—the oldest guiding company in the world.
Wibault, a 70-year-old Frenchman and Chamonix native, is a 46-year veteran IFMGA-certified guide. He raced for the French Ski Team from 1966-68, but a broken femur took him away from racing and to his "destiny," as he calls it, ski coaching and eventually mountain guiding. He works for La Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix and has led clients up Mont Blanc 82 times.
"Growing up in Chamonix meant totally being engrossed in the ski lifestyle. There was school that was often coupled with ski club and if you weren't at the top level," says Wibault, "you became a ski instructor, coach or mountain guide." In addition to his multi-faceted mountain lifestyle, Wibault is also a rather accomplished artist.
His art is a mix of sketching and painting with oils on canvas in a realistic and traditional style that he learned from his father, Marcel Wibault. Marcel who was born in 1904 and studied at L'École des Beaux Arts in Paris, would lug his paints, canvases, and materials to a good viewpoint to capture the mountains from sight. Lionel continues the tradition his father started and carries his art supplies into the Alps, but he has developed his own artistic fashion by placing more emphasis on light and contrasting colors.
The mountains surrounding Chamonix have long inspired skiers, and Wibault is no exception. He strives to capture the emotion he feels from the light that hits the mountain at the beginning or the end of the day, and mixes different shades and hues to recreate the colors. I caught up with Wibault to learn more about his art, skiing, and finding inspiration in the mountains.
You're well known for hiking in the Alps with a canvas and a set of paints. Why is it important to start a painting outside and in the mountains?
Every time that I go climbing I have some notes and paper that I can draw on, it helps me get some special perspective from the climb while I am up quite high. I then take this perspective with me to my workshop. I have also gone up with small canvas frames to depict this special atmosphere—it's especially spectacular when there are clouds and the light is bouncing off the rocks and snow. You have a lot to discover in those mountains because everything changes so fast.
How have painting and the mountains helped you grow throughout your life?
I am fascinated by what I see. I climb a lot and have a lot of customers who would take me all around [the world] and through this I discovered that I had the genes for painting. Of course, a lot of this impression was from my father who was had an incredible career as a painter—he sold more than 4,000 paintings around the world. He would paint what he could see and I learned to paint more from what I have lived. I lived through my active lifestyle in the mountains.
Which was your first passion—skiing or painting?
First came skiing…then mountaineering and then painting. Now that I'm getting older, it's more often painting because I've been very satisfied with my career in the mountains.
You are one of the more veteran guides with La Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, getting your IFMGA certification in 1971. What have been some of the more challenging parts of guiding?
I've been through many different experiences throughout the whole process from risky moments and close calls with rock fall; but I've managed to never fall into a crevasse or get stuck in an avalanche. I was lucky—and in the guide life, sometimes you need to have luck on your side.
Why do you want to paint Mount Blanc 100 times?
I have been working all around the mountain at all different types of angles and elevations of up to 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) to show this incredible mountain through all of its faces by using different techniques, atmospheres with styles. It is not photography. It's an expression of what I have lived and I'm happy with that.
How have you seen the mountain change over time?
We are lucky because Mount Blanc is a big glacier at a relatively high elevation….but that doesn't mean that it doesn't change. Chamonix has developed a lot with the cable car (Aiguile de Midi) being built in 1955 and other things like the tunnel and development of the resorts in '60s and '70s. Now we have a huge network of ski lifts, gondolas, etc. continuing to be developed by Compagnie du Mont Blanc and every year more and more people come. It's hard to say what will come of it all.
You learned to paint from your father. What did he teach you?
I learned a lot from my father, but my father was more about expressing the rock elements with painting. My work focuses on the light. I try to [portray] places through the shadows and the ever-changing sun. It has helped me to build something artistic and true, through this I can glorify the shape of the mountains.
How much time do you spend skiing now, versus painting?
I have done so much with my body throughout all these years with skiing and mountaineering that I can now realize and appreciate the fact that its really nice to be home peacefully painting in my workshop. I can still be there in the elements of the mountains that I remember so well because I have spent so much time in this vivid space.