The Gotthard Post is one of the best-loved Swiss paintings, embodying as it does the quintessence of the Alpine country. The stagecoach, now the very model of romantic serenity, had at the time only been travelling the pass for a few decades. The new road was celebrated as a masterpiece of engineering. Koller here depicts the acceleration it made possible by having the vehicle overtake a herd of cows as it plunges down the valley. The varieties of movement shown – the plodding cows and the racing coach – amplify the painting’s dramatic effect. The panicked calf serves Koller as an anecdotal focus for his illustration of speed. The coach is heading straight for the viewer along the steep zigzag of the pass, and, under full steam and heavily laden as it is, threatens to overshoot the curve, as apparently exemplified by the direction in which the driver is holding his whip.
And yet Koller is far from painting a realistic portrait of the Gotthard post. One of his initial ideas, showing guests at a rest stop, would have been a more faithful representation of what was a safe and dependable means of transport, moving over 70,000 travellers a year across the 2,100-metre pass.
Koller’s Gotthard Post was commissioned by Switzerland’s Northeastern Railway as a farewell gift to Alfred Escher, the Swiss tycoon who was leaving to help found and finance the Gotthard railway. Koller deliberately avoided including any direct reference to the modernizing influence of rail, preferring instead to create an allegory of the acceleration of means of transport.
The painter was not particularly fond of the work himself; according to him, the best thing about it was its title. But it was to enjoy great and long-standing popularity, due surely to the associative range of its motif: the Gotthard is a symbol of safe passage across the Alps, of a remarkable feat of Swiss engineering, for all that the accomplishment itself is not the main subject. And finally, the Gotthard is emblematic of the sublimity of the Alps. All of these aspects stand for the qualities and achievements of the young nation of Switzerland, and thus crystallize the concept of ‘home’.