The Glaciers of Mont Blanc

The Glaciers of Mont Blanc

Geology and the Artist as Naturalist-Explorer

During the eighteenth century, increasing interest in the natural sciences, especially geology, inspired artists to paint extraordinary landscapes. They ventured into regions where few outsiders traveled and newly envisioned themselves as artist-naturalist-explorers.

Artists’ interpretations of glaciers advanced the public’s fascination with Earth’s sublime features. Mont Blanc, with its grand glaciers, relatively easy access, and rank as western Europe’s highest peak (15,782 ft; 4,810 m), became the most popular and well-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 ( Swiss, 1739-1819), 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 landscapes.


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, photograph of View of the Needles of Charmoz, 2005.

Top banner image: Claude-Sebastien Hugard de la Tour (French 1816-1885),  La Mer de glace, 1862, oil on canvas, 156 x 242 cm, Musee des Beaux Arts, Chambery