Geology and the Artist as Naturalist-Explorer
Beginning in the eighteenth century, the blossoming of the natural sciences, especially geology, liberated artists to paint unique landscape formations. Assuming the role of naturalist-explorer, artists ventured into regions where few nonnative inhabitants traveled.
Joseph Bettannier, Hugi’s Hut on a medial moraine of the lower Aar glacier from Louis Agassiz, Etudes surges glaciers, lithograph, 1840.
Artists’ interpretations of glaciers appealed to the public’s curiosity about Earth’s natural wonders. With its impressive glaciers, relative accessibility, and status as western Europe’s tallest peak (15,782 ft; 4,810 m), Mont Blanc soon became the most popular and best-documented mountain.
The geologist Horace Benedict de Saussure (Swiss, 1740-1799) contributed to a growing fascination with the Alps. His Voyages in the Alps (1779–1796), illustrated with drawings by Marc Theodore Bourrit (Swiss, 1739–1819), became the foundation for modern glaciology.
Top: Marc Theodore Bourrit, Mont Blanc’s White Alley, 1786, from Voyages in the Alps. Bottom: The scientist Patrizia Imhof photographed a comparative view in 2009 to document the glacier’s recession.
Some contemporary scientists track the loss of ice by comparing current photographs with early alpine artworks.
Top: Jean-Antoine Link, View of the Glacier des Bois and the Needles of Charmoz from the arch, called the Cap, 1799, colored etching. Bottom: Samuel U. Nussbaumer, View of the Needles of Charmoz, 2005, color photograph