This watercolour depicts the ‘Mer de Glace’, the Alps glacier that lies above Chamonix to the North East: the same view that Ruskin would later capture in the iconic 1854 daguerreotype, Chamonix. Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif, also part of The Ruskin Whitehouse Collection (1996D0075).

Ruskin spent five weeks at Chamonix in June 1849, a tour documented in multiple diaries by Ruskin himself, and in the diary kept by Ruskin’s assistant, John Thomas Hobbs (Morgan Library, New York). The glacier is seen from Montanvert, the elevated viewpoint above the Mer de Glace, where Ruskin stayed. Mer de Glace, Chamonix evidences Ruskin’s skills as a draughtsman and watercolour painter, and his increasing knowledge of glacier and geological science. It is likely that the outline sketch, overlaid with dramatic use of sepia and blue-grey washes, with brilliant white spotlights on the glacier and mountain silhouette, was begun in-situ but, due to its size, completed later. Ruskin’s practices as a critic and artist interlinked, and he took the challenge of ‘truth to nature’ into his own work: on the 5th July he wrote in his diary that ‘really my Chamouni work has been most disappointing to me … I can’t do it yet, but I have the imagination of it in me, and will do it, some day’ (Diaries vol. 2, Ed. by Joan Evans, John Howard Whitehouse (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958) p. 404).

Ruskin’s diary for August 1849 records many ascents onto the glaciers around Chamonix, led by the local guide Joseph Couttet. In his diaries and other forms of documentation – sketches, drawings and paintings - geological and visual observations are interlinked. Multiple forms of landscape knowledge emerge from observing the glacier in proximity: a practice of ‘close looking’ made possible by being one of the few visiting artists who climbed in the mountains, rather than observing from a distance.

The writing of Ruskin and his contemporaries accelerated tourism to historically isolated areas of the Alpine region. He criticised mountaineers for ‘[making] race courses of the cathedrals of the earth’, anticipating levels of mountain tourism in the 21st century evident in queues to the summit of Mont Blanc (John Ruskin, ‘Of Kings’ Treasuries’, in Sesame and Lilies, ed by Cook and Wedderburn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1865), pp 53-108).

This drawing is Inscribed in pencil: Mer de Glace Aig de Dur Grand Jurasses & Dent du [ … ]

Reference no. 1996P1206


  • Title: Mer de Glace
  • Creator: John Ruskin
  • Date Created: 1874
  • Rights: The Ruskin, Lancaster University

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