introducing vanishing ice

Vanishing Ice offers an interdisciplinary perspective into the rich cultural legacy of the planet’s alpine and polar landscapes.

It features the work of an international array of artists whose careers span over two hundred years. Tracing the impact of glaciers, icebergs, and fields of ice on artists’ imaginations, this website explores the connections between artists, natural scientists and the history of exploration. 

In the past, artists introduced the public to the geology of ice and the concept of ice ages as evidence of Earth’s ancient origins. Today, artists present the fragility of ice, which is rapidly disappearing in our warming world of climate change. Using different styles, media, and creative approaches to interpreting icy landscapes, artists highlight both the sublime beauty and deteriorating condition of the planet’s once remote regions: alpine mountain chains, the Arctic, and Antarctica.

This website, Vanishing Ice: Artists on the Front Line of Global Climate Change, is based on interpretive documentation from an international touring exhibition, Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012. Curated by Dr. Barbara Matilsky, the exhibition was organized under the auspices of the Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA, 2013 and traveled until 2018 to the following institutions: El Paso Museum of Art, Glenbow Museum, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, David Brower Center, and Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

This website aims to highlight the contributions made by artists  to the rich cultural legacy of the planet’s alpine and polar landscapes. View Timeline

Top banner image: A large iceberg in Antarctica. Photo by Jay Ruzesky.

alpine glaciers

Art & Science/ Mountaineering & Tourism/ Environmental Preservation

Beginning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, enthusiasm for mountain landscapes expanded across Europe and into North America. Artists, scientists, and writers introduced the sublime splendor and natural history of alpine terrain, which was once believed to harbor demons and dragons.

Artists’ views of alpine landscapes helped popularize the revolutionary concept of Ice Ages, which advanced and receded over vast stretches of time through the movement of glaciers and ice sheets. Artworks contributed to knowledge about Earth’s expanding age and geological formations. 

Artists’ images appeared in scientific publications, travelogues, popular magazines, and exhibitions. A passion for mountain climbing and tourism to alpine regions soon emerged. Collaborations between the arts and sciences stimulated a closer connection between people and nature. This influenced the emergence of groups like the Sierra Club (1892) and campaigns for environmental preservation.


Jean Charles Joseph Rémond (1795-1875), Limestone Peak of the Wetterhorn and Rosenlaui Glacier, 1842, National Museum of Natural History, Paris (detail right); photos: Barbara Matilsky

Artists were commissioned to create mural-sized landscape paintings for natural history museums and schools of higher learning. These works helped students and the public visualize the movement of glaciers, which was key to understanding the process of ice age formation and retreat.

Cool Fact

Mary Shelley’s famous novel Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818), which was written after a trip to to Mont Blanc’s glaciers, takes place in the Alps and the Arctic.

Top banner image: Joseph Mallard William Turner, Mer de Glace in the Valley of Chamouni, Switzerland, 1803, watercolor and graphite with gum on wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

The Arctic

An Ocean Surrounded by Land

Primarily an ocean encircled by land, the Arctic is about the size of the continental United States. The edges of three continents – North America, Europe, and Asia – cross its boundaries, allowing humans access to the territory within the Arctic Circle. Arctic ice helps control Earth’s climate by reflecting light and heat back to space. The Arctic forms complex ecosystems harboring abundant life, including small organisms at the base of the food chain, sea mammals, and polar bears. Aboriginal peoples, including the Inuit, have lived in the region for thousands of years. Their wisdom and survival skills helped many explorers survive in this extreme but mesmerizing landscape.

Central Intelligence Agency, Courtesy of the University of Texas.

COOL FACT:  Sea ice grows each winter and creates haul-out spots for seals and hunting grounds for polar bears. With the melting of ice, animals are becoming endangered.

Top banner image: Camille Seaman, Grand Pinnacle Iceberg, East Greenland, from The Last Iceberg, 2006


A Continent Surrounded by Ocean

Antarctica differs from the Arctic – its polar opposite –  in topography, ecology, and history. A vast continent, it is covered by ice up to three-miles thick (4,572 m) in some places. The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica connects with the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Its nutrient-rich waters support an ecosystem teeming with life.

Human history is shorter in Antarctica than in the Arctic. Indigenous peoples never lived here. Seaman in search of whales were the first to venture into the region. They were followed by explorers, scientists, and artists.

Louis Lebreton, Landing on Adelie Land, January 21, 1840,  from Voyage to the South Pole on the Astrolabe and the Zelee, 1837-1840, Atlas Pittoreque, Paris, 1846, lithograph


The mean temperature at the South Pole is –58°F (–50°C) versus the North Pole, which is a balmy 0°F (–18°C).


“If you were standing at the South Pole, you would be at an elevation of 9,300 feet above sea level (that’s how thick the ice is there) and 800 miles from the moderating influence of the ocean (i.e., a continental climate).

If you were standing at the North Pole, you would be on an ice floe about 6-10 feet thick floating in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, which is about 13,000 feet deep there (i.e., a maritime climate).

At the North Pole, the temperature is about +30°F in summer and can be as cold as −40°F in winter.  At the South Pole, it’s always very cold: −15°F in the Antarctic summer and −80°F in the Antarctic winter.”

– Harry Stern, Polar Science Center, University of Washington

Top banner image: Map of Antarctica, (Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica), US Geological Survey, National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration,  and the British Antarctic Survey.

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