John Brett

Glacier of Rosenlaui

1856

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 445 x 419 mm
frame: 690 x 603 x 71 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 1946
Reference
N05643

Summary

Brett spent the summer of 1856 at Rosenlaui in Switzerland. He was inspired to take the trip after reading the fourth volume of Ruskin's Modern Painters, entitled 'Of Mountain Beauty'. In Switzerland he encountered another Pre-Raphaelite follower, J.W. Inchbold, who was working on a picture of the Jungfrau. This chance encounter had a decisive effect on Brett's own art, and he wrote in his diary, '[I] saw him do a few touches to his jung-frau and there and then saw that I had never painted in my life, but only fooled and slopped and thenceforth attempted in a reasonable way to paint all I could see' (Brett Diary, 9 December 1856, quoted in Parris, p.147).

In addition to Inchbold's influence, the painting reflects Brett's reverence for Ruskin's theories on the laws of beauty and also his own lifelong interest in geology. In the centre foreground is a boulder of granite and beyond it a block of gneiss with its characteristic curving folds, so admired by Ruskin. Every rock and pebble has been painted in intricate detail, following Ruskin's dictum that a small stone could be likened to a pearl or to 'a mountain in miniature' (E.T. Cook and A.D.O. Wedderburn (eds), The Works of John Ruskin, vol.IV, 1902-12, pp.367-8). Despite its close attention to detail, the picture offers a sublime vision of nature. We are made to reflect on the enormous power of the glacier, a huge mass of steely-white snow and ice, pushing away stones and upending boulders that lie in its wake. It stretches back into a misty distance, where the tops of mountains are just visible, but where no man could survive for any length of time.

Soon after Brett returned from Switzerland, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw The Glacier of Rosenlaui in his studio and took it to show Ruskin. Ruskin was apparently delighted with the picture and conveyed 'expressions of pleasure and praise' (Brett Diary, 9 December 1856, quoted in Parris, p.147) to the artist.

Further reading:
Leslie Parris (ed), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.146-7, no.79, reproduced p.146.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, p.254, reproduced p.253, in colour.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Art, London 1999, p.135, reproduced p.135, in colour.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

Display caption

The Rosenlaui glacier is at the foot of two spectacular Alpine peaks, including the Dossenhorn, and yet they are not the focus here. Instead Brett makes a meticulous study of different types of rocks and pebbles, offset by the dense blue white folds of the glacier itself. This attention to the detail as well as enormity of nature reflects the critic John Ruskin’s sentiment that a small stone was ‘a mountain in miniature’. Brett had travelled to Switzerland after reading Ruskin’s Of Mountain Beauty and met the artist John William Inchbold who influenced him to ‘paint all I could see’.

From William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude’, Book 6, Cambridge and the Alps, 1850

... The immeasurable heightOf woods decaying, never to be decayed,The stationary blasts of waterfalls,And in the narrow rent at every turnWinds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-sideAs if a voice were in them, the sick sightAnd giddy prospect of the raving stream,The unfettered clouds and regions of the

Heavens,Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light –Were all like workings of one mind, the featuresOf the same face, blossoms upon one tree;Characters of the great Apocalypse,The types and symbols of Eternity,Of first, and last, and midst, and without end.

Gallery label, March 2010