Vittorio Sella

Alpine Collection

Aiguille de la Za, from its base
AIV 272 - Aiguille de la Za, from its base

Vittorio Sella Photographer, Winner of The Grand Gold Medal and Diploma of Hounour, Geographical Exhibition of Turin, Italy, February 1893

Exhibited by the Appalachian Mountain Club, May 1893, at the Boston Art Club, attendance 9000

The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the oldest environmental organization in the United States, was founded in 1876. Though the club's focus was on the White Mountain range in New Hampshire, the club members were interested in international mountaineering and exploration. By the 1890s, they were a large and active part of the Boston cultural community, constantly sponsoring lectures and art shows in addition to outings and trail building.

Matterhorn and Dent D'Herens, from the summit of Mittel-Gavelhorn
AV 377 - Matterhorn and Dent D'Herens, from the summit of Mittel-Gavelhorn

One of the founding members of the AMC, Charles Fay, was friends of the Sella family. The Sellas were wealthy textile manufacturers of Biella, Italy. Vittorio Sella’s father wrote the first treatise on photography published in Italy, and his uncle founded the Italian Alpine Club and was a minister in the Cabinet of the King of Italy, helpful in the re-unification of Italy from its various city-states in the late 19th Century. The King’s nephew The Duke of the Abruzzi sponsored three royal climbing expeditions that Sella was a member of: Mt. St. Elias in Alaska in 1897, to Africa in 1908, and K2 in the Himalayas in 1909. Through this friendship, the Club members began including Sella in some of its exhibitions, and by 1892, agreed to bring a larger group to Boston in 1893.

Matterhorn and Dent D'Herens (at sunset), from moraine of Ober-Theodul Glacier

AV 407 - Matterhorn and Dent D'Herens (at sunset), from moraine of Ober-Theodul Glacier
The larger group contained about 300 views of the European Alps and 200 of the Caucasus region.  The group was first shown at the Geographical Exhibition of Turin, Italy, where it won the Gold Medal. Then it was sent to Boston where it went on immediate exhibition.

See Caucasus at

Panorama from the summit of the Dom, 14,937 feet
AVIII 129-130 - Monte Rosa, Taschhorn, Lyskamm (129); Matterhorn, Graian Alps, and Zermatt Valley.
Panorama from the summit of the Dom, 14,937 feet (130)

In 1893 Elizabeth Denio, an AMC member, wrote about this in a Club Report:

“The notable events of the year in the Department of Art have been the exhibition of the Sella Collection of Alpine and Caucasian photographs, and the purchase of the same by subscription for the Club.

Without doubt this collection, numbering some five hundred subjects, is one of the largest and finest ever seen in America. They differ from most mountain photographs in being largely taken from extremely high points, and in this, as in their superb technique, testify to Mr. Sella's skill both as a mountaineer and as a photographer. Several form panoramas; others are details of the upper portions of high mountains; and all combine to present a marvelous world of snow and ice, of crag and crevasse, of regions lonely, vast, and most fascinating. Old travellers quite familiar with the Alps thrill again as they see these pictures, and recall experiences in the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, or Mont Rosa; all behold a hitherto unknown world of sublimity and beauty in the Caucasian mountains, while delighting in the infinite gradations of color, the magnificent cloud effects, the marvels of rock-structure in these perfect reproductions of Nature.”

Aletsch Glacier and Eggischhorn, from Concordia Hut

AIX 184 - Aletsch Glacier and Eggischhorn, from Concordia Hut
In the Appalachian Mountain Club journal for 1893 the exhibition was described in detail as well as its purchase by the Club:

“All the pictorial efforts that have been made to give an idea of the sublimity and beauty of the upper regions of the Alps pale their ineffectual fires beside the photographs of Mr. Vittorio Sella, now on exhibition in the galleries of the Boston Art Club. Painters have vainly tried the impossible task, and it has remained for this indomitable Italian alpestrian to carry his camera to the very summits. . . . for the purpose of bringing down to us the pictured marvels of those terrible heights. . . . It testifies in a most convincing manner to his skill, his taste, his industry, and his courage. . . . These uncommon pictures afford vivid glimpses of the wonderful and unknown world of snow and ice which exists in the high Alps, a world of terrible desolation and isolation and of awful beauty and majesty. Climbers have hitherto been the only ones to see these things, and it is the distinction of Mr. Sella that he has brought such a rare sensation within the reach of all. There is a peculiar and inexplicable fascination about the grim Siberian wastes of the wind-swept peaks and the lonely upper slopes of the snow-covered Alps which none but the fanatical mountaineer may fully appreciate, and which the spice of danger only augments. . . . Enthusiasm for the mountains will receive a new impulse from the splendid pictures. They are without doubt splendid, for no better photographs could be desired, and snow scenery has never been so beautifully and faithfully represented. The infinitely delicate gradation of values in gray are a study and delight for artists. The structure of the mountains is graphically revealed, and the imposing forms of the cliffs and ridges. . . . of so many almost inaccessible heights, affords much rich material for the scientist and explorer.

The arrangement of the pictures, favored by the excellent facilities afforded by the galleries, was all that could be desired. The principal hall contained the Alpine views arranged in groups from left to right, beginning with Dauphiny (I.) and passing eastward to the exquisite Tyrolese views (XL). Just space enough was left to accommodate the small group of Etna. In the smaller gallery — adjoining the larger by so broad an entrance as to reveal most of its wealth to one standing in the main hall, and vice versa — was the superb Caucasian series similarly displayed. With the Swiss groups sheets of the Dufour map were hung, to aid in comprehending the geography of those regions; while on a table in the centre of the main hall was to be found the most pertinent literature of the less familiar mountains.

To no one of our members who looked for the first time on that exquisite display could it have seemed within the bounds of possibility that it could become the possession of our Club. Hence it was almost with an expression of incredulity that the company assembled on that first evening heard from the Chairman of the Committee that, through Mr. Sella's generosity, such a consummation was not impossible, and that a subscription for the purpose of purchasing the entire collection would then and there be opened. An initial subscription of twenty-five dollars from " A Friend" was immediately announced. While most acceptable, this large donation did not seem consonant with the wish that the subscription should be of a popular character, that the Club should acquire this rich possession through the interest of the many rather than the few. Though the attempt was made to emphasize this opinion by the next following subscriptions, the oppressive sense of the magnitude of the undertaking seemed to prevail, and comparatively few names were upon the list at the close of the evening, —yet these represented the first one hundred dollars of the necessary sum. A circular issued by the Committee served to set the matter in its true light, responses rapidly followed, and it may be said that in general it was found a very easy matter to secure the four hundred dollars which individual members of the Club and others contributed to the fund. The list of contributors with the amount of their subscriptions has been placed on file with the Treasurer of the Club.”

Near the Tosa Hut
AXI Near the Tosa Hut

For the next 10 years, the prints were circulated in over 50 venues, primarily in New England but also as far west as Portland. Sella continued to give and sell prints to the AMC through his last expedition to the Himalayas and K2 in 1909. 

For more information see

These vintage exhibition prints are primarily silver collodion prints and many suffered wear and tear from the exhibitions. The Club considered the risk of damage versus the benefit of having the public view the work and favored the public viewing.