Well before the famous landscape paintings of Switzerland by Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), one of the pioneers of Alpine views was Caspar Wolf (1735–1783).
Wolf was born in the town of Muri in central northern Switzerland. He trained in Konstanz, and during the 1750s worked as a decorative painter in Bavaria, Germany. Attempts to sell his paintings proved fruitless, so he moved back to his home town in Switzerland. In 1769, he moved to Paris, where he worked with Philip James de Loutherbourg, before the latter went to London and became famous for his maritime paintings and industrial scenes, such as Coalbrookdale by Night (1801).
It isn’t clear whether Wolf painted this amazing scene of Bathers near a Waterfall in the Mountains in 1770, when he was still with Loutherbourg, or in 1776, when he was back in Switzerland. These hardy women seem content to bask in the sunshine and cavort unclad in the icy meltwater, as their dog watches in astonishment.
Wolf’s break came in 1774, when he moved to the city of Bern and made a deal to deliver two hundred paintings to a local publisher. Among these was this Panorama of Grindelwald with the Wetterhorn, Mettenberg and Eiger (1774), which is an unusually wide-angle view from what was then little more than a village.
He moved closer into the foot of the ice to paint The Lower Grindelwald Glacier with Lütschine and the Mettenberg presumably during the same visit. The scale of the ice cliffs here is given by the small group of figures who have walked up to gaze into its caverns.
He then used that basic view to construct Thunder and Lighting on the Lower Grindelwald Glacier, back in the studio probably between 1774-75. I apologise for the scanning artefact in this image.
He travelled around the Alps steadily working through his contractual commitment. By 1776, he had painted this view of The Lauteraar Glacier, also in the Bernese Alps. The large tabular rock was a popular spot for more adventurous tourists to sit and become inspired by the awe of the ice and mountains around them.
One of his most popular paintings was this view of the Devil’s Bridge in the Saint Gothard Pass, from 1777. The pass connects northern and southern Switzerland, and this section has been of great strategic importance. This bridge across the Schöllenen Gorge was first built in wood in around 1220, and was a key section of the route. It probably wasn’t replaced by a stone bridge until the seventeenth century, and by 1775 it had developed into that shown here, which was wide enough to allow passage of the first carriage.
Less than thirty years later, JMW Turner exercised his imagination and exaggerated vertical scale in his famous view from the bridge.
Wolf also painted sites of national significance, such as the castle of Schloss Neu Bechburg at Önsingen (1778), which was built in about 1250. This is also in central northern Switzerland.
I haven’t been able to discover much about Wolf’s working methods, but a pair of paintings which he made in about 1778 provide tantalising insight.
Wolf painted this study of The Geltenbach Falls in the Lauenen Valley with an Ice Bridge in oil on cardboard, almost certainly in front of the motif. This is now in the Clark Art Institute, and I apologise for the small size of this image.
He turned that into this finished painting of The Geltenbach Falls in the Lauenen Valley with an Ice Bridge that same year, presumably in his studio. Although 1778 isn’t particularly early for a plein air oil sketch, given the logistic problems associated with working outdoors in oils in this remote rural location, it is quite an achievement.
These falls were little-known at this time, but when nearby Gstaad became an internationally-known spa town in the nineteenth century, they went onto many tourist itineraries.
Wolf didn’t rely on oil sketches alone. This undated study in brown ink of The “Chute de la Tritt” Weir at Mühletal East of Innentkirchen also appears to have been made in preparation for a larger, finished work, which I have been unable to trace.
In 1779, prints made from Wolf’s paintings were exhibited in Bern, but the book didn’t sell. Wolf worked his way around Spa, Cologne, Düsseldorf, and finally reached Heidelberg in 1783, where he died at the age of only 48. Two years later, his publisher had a better response to a collection of thirty aquatints made of Wolf’s paintings. His work remains almost forgotten today.
Tomorrow, as a sequel to this article, I will show his paintings of the Lower Grindelwald Glacier to help demonstrate the effects of climate change.