The Glacier of Rosenlaui, 1856
Oil on canvas
John Brett was inspired by John Ruskin’s eloquent descriptions of alpine scenery and by his own scientific interests to visit Switzerland in 1856. In this view, Brett dramatically evokes the power of a river of ice flowing between mountain peaks. He drew on the theories of Louis Agassiz (1807-73), the Swiss paleontologist and systematist, who believed that glaciers, which he called 'God’s great plough', had shaped the Northern Hemisphere during a great ice age. The erratic boulders in the foreground seem to have been deposited by the glacier in the way that Agassiz described. It is a desolate scene, but one which in its rhythms suggests the overwhelming force of the elements.
Although Darwin felt that Agassiz’s theories substantiated his own belief in natural selection, the latter was vehemently opposed to Darwin’s views. Brett’s vision is attuned to both Lyell’s and Darwin’s view of nature, as a dynamic and often destructive entity, in which all living creatures - including humans - must struggle to survive.
Tate, London. Purchased 1894