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.
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.