Mer de Glace-Moonlight, 1863
watercolor, 9.44 x 14.17 in. (24 x 36 cm)
Alpine Club Photo Library, London
Some of the first known alpine photographs were taken by John Ruskin, artist, naturalist, and the nineteenth century’s esteemed art critic. Using the early daguerreotype process of one-off plates, he captured more than forty views of Switzerland between 1849 and 1858. Although Ruskin feared that photography would negatively impact art, he appreciated its utilitarian function. He rendered one of his photographs, Mer de Glace, Chamonix, into a watercolor in 1849.
In Mer de Glace- Moonlight, Ruskin returns to the glacier and paints it from the same angle as his earlier watercolor. The artist imbues the topography with a mysterious, haunting quality that reflects his love for the “snowy mountains shining like heavenly castles far above.”
The artist expressed his ecstasy in the presence of Mont Blanc through sketches, poetry, and journal writing after his first trip to the Alps in 1833. At age fifteen, Ruskin read Saussure’s Voyages in the Alps and published an illustrated scientific paper about the strata of Mont Blanc for the Magazine of Natural History. Geologists especially admired his later book, Deucalion: Collected Studies of the Life of Waves and Stones (1879), which examined the forms and movements of glaciers.
Advocating the close study of nature, Ruskin’s influence spread in Europe and the United States through books like Mountain Beauty (1856), the fourth volume of his series Modern Painters (1843–1860). After nineteen trips to the once-secluded village of Chamonix, he wrote regretfully about its development as a mecca for tourism and mountaineering.