Glaciers: vanishing motifs

John Brett (1831–1902), Glacier of Rosenlaui (1856), oil on canvas, 44.5 x 41.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1946), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

If you want to paint a glacier, now may already be too late. Around the world, they’re in retreat, thanks to our changing climate. This article first demonstrates that in paintings and more recent photographs of the Lower Grindelwald Glacier, after which I show some other notable paintings of glaciers.

Caspar Wolf (1735–1783), Panorama of Grindelwald with the Wetterhorn, Mettenberg and Eiger (1774), oil on canvas, 82 x 226 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

Caspar Wolf’s paintings of the Lower Grindelwald Glacier from 1774 are among the earliest reasonably faithful depictions available. His Panorama of Grindelwald with the Wetterhorn, Mettenberg and Eiger shows two prominent glaciers flowing down towards the village of Grindelwald from the massif behind.

Caspar Wolf (1735–1783), The Lower Grindelwald Glacier with Lütschine and the Mettenberg (1774), oil on canvas, 53.5 x 81 cm, Kunst Museum Winterthur, Winterthur, Switzerland. Wikimedia Commons.

The height of the ice towers in Wolf’s Lower Grindelwald Glacier with Lütschine and the Mettenberg can be judged against three tiny figures standing at its foot.

Joseph Anton Koch (1768–1839), Grindelwald Glacier in the Alps (1823), oil on canvas, 88.5 x 122.5 cm, Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, Wrocław, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Nearly fifty years later, Joseph Anton Koch’s Grindelwald Glacier in the Alps (1823) was painted from a point further from the end of the glacier, but its ice still fills the valley above.

Thomas Fearnley (1802–1842), Grindelwald Glacier (1, sketch) (c 1837), oil on canvas, 31 × 40.5 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

Fifteen years later, Thomas Fearnley visited the end of the Glacier, and produced this superb plein air oil sketch.

Thomas Fearnley (1802–1842), Grindelwald Glacier (2) (1838), oil on canvas, 157 × 194 cm, Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo. Wikimedia Commons.

A year or so later, Fearnley turned that sketch into this large finished version. The method he used to transfer from his original sketch has reversed the sides of the image, but many details have been retained.

Photographer not known, Glacier and Bäregg Inn, Grindelwald, Bernese Oberland, Switzerland (1890-1900), photochrome print, dimensions not known, The Library of Congress, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

An unknown photographer visited the Bäregg Inn between 1890-1900, and took this early colour photo of the end of the glacier still filling the valley then, although it appears to be in decline.

Armin Kübelbeck, Lower Grindelwald Glacier (29 July 2009), photograph. Image by Armin Kübelbeck, CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

Armin Kübelbeck’s source photos for this composite image were taken from Bäregg on 29 July 2009, by which time the ice has vanished from that valley, leaving the remains of the glacier hanging far in the distance. The Lower Grindelwald Glacier has all but gone, its savage majesty seen only in those paintings from around two hundred years ago.

Painting glaciers has hardly been popular, as it is so demanding. Just getting your sketching gear up to their foot can be an epic in itself. In August of 1856, the young and aspiring landscape painter John Brett took his oil paints and canvas up to the Rosenlaui Glacier in the Bernese Alps, and tried to paint the impossible.

Glacier of Rosenlaui 1856 by John Brett 1831-1902
John Brett (1831–1902), Glacier of Rosenlaui (1856), oil on canvas, 44.5 x 41.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1946), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Brett was following the guidance given by John Ruskin in the fourth volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters series, and attempted to paint the whole of this finely detailed view in front of the motif. He signed and dated it 23 August 1856, but was almost certainly forced to ‘cheat’ a little, finishing some of it over the following months in his studio.

William Bradford (1823–1892), View of Sermitsialik Glacier (1873), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 76.2 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

A little later, on the other side of the Atlantic, William Bradford painted some pure landscape views of the coast of Greenland, including this View of Sermitsialik Glacier (1873). This glacier is near the abandoned mining town of Ivittuut, close to Cape Desolation on the western side of the southern tip of Greenland. This was also the site of one of the Norse (‘Viking’) settlements, dating from about 985 CE, although I don’t think that Bradford painted any of the settlements on the island.

Today, you would have to travel many miles inland to find this glacier, now a shadow of its former self.

One place that you can still find raw unadulterated glaciers is the awe-inspiring island of Iceland, midway between Bradford’s bleak western shores of the Atlantic, and the warmer coasts of Europe.

Þórarinn B. Þorláksson (1867-1924), Stórisjór og Vatnajökull (1921), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Þórarinn B. Þorláksson’s view of Stórisjór and Vatnajökull from 1921 shows a barren hilly area with its lakes, and the vast dome of the Vatnajökull glacier in the far distance. Vatnajökull is the largest in Iceland, and one of the largest in Europe, with an average ice depth of 400 metres (1300 feet).

Guðmundur Thorsteinsson (“Muggur”) (1891-1924), Snæfellsjökull (1922), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Guðmundur Thorsteinsson’s painting of Snæfellsjökull from 1922 shows one of Iceland’s volcanoes, near Reykjavík in the far west. It last erupted in about 200 CE, and features as the entrance to the passage which takes Jules Verne’s characters in their Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864).

For the whole of recorded history until 2012, its peak and most of its upper reaches have been covered by a glacier. However, as a result of climate change, in August 2012 its summit became free of ice for the first time.

Alpine glaciers are gone, leaving empty valleys lined with scree, Greenland is getting greener and far less white, and even Iceland now comes without the ice.