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9 March 2022

Caspar Wolf’s peak performances

The Swiss artist journeyed into the high mountains to paint what few had seen before.

By Michael Prodger

In the summer of 1728, a young Swiss naturalist and physiologist called Albrecht von Haller embarked on a plant hunting tour in the Alps. After two months he had amassed both a collection of upland flora and a headful of impressions that emerged in “Die Alpen” – “The Alps” – a poem of 490 hexameters, published anonymously in 1732, that extolled both the dramatic scenery of the mountains and the prelapsarian way of life of their inhabitants. The poem depicted the Alps as a realm of beneficence and beauty rather than malignancy and terror, and sent innumerable sensitive and well-to-do travellers scurrying up into the mountains. For Goethe meanwhile, “The Alps” marked nothing less than “the beginning of a national German literature”.

Von Haller’s recasting of the mountains inspired one of his fellow countrymen too: the painter Caspar Wolf (1735-83). Wolf also took a naturalist’s approach to the Alps and dedicated his career to painting their peaks, glaciers, gorges and waterfalls. Although he was a contemporary of the two great theorists of the sublime – Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant – Wolf had a geological bent and was less concerned with the emotional potency of the mountains than the tangible reality of rock strata and ice.

Wolf’s career was peripatetic: he was born in Muri in the canton of Aargau, trained in Konstanz, and worked as a decorative artist across Bavaria. Frustrated by his lack of advancement, he returned to live in Switzerland until leaving for Paris in 1769. There he worked with the maritime artist Philip James de Loutherbourg, who was later to move to London to become a scenery painter at David Garrick’s Drury Lane Theatre and invent a miniature mechanical “entertainment” to show “Various Imitations of Natural Phenomena”. Although Wolf was De Loutherbourg’s senior by five years, the Frenchman was more advanced in his art, and during his two-year stay Wolf learned a great deal from him about how to depict nature’s drama.

It was in 1774, when Wolf moved to Bern, that his real engagement with the mountains began. There he met the publisher Abraham Wagner, who asked him to join a team preparing an encyclopaedic guide to the Swiss Alps. He did not want Wolf to make romanticised views but accurate ones. A similar project had been initiated earlier in the century by the scholars JJ Scheuchzer and Luigi Marsigli and the painter Felix Meyer, but Wagner’s conception dwarfed theirs. Wolf was to accompany Wagner and the theologian Jakob Samuel Wyttenbach – who would provide the written commentary – and journey into regions of the mountains where few had previously ventured, to draw directly from nature. These expeditions were eventually to yield some 200 pictures.

[See also: How Mary Swanzy brought colour to cubism]

Wolf had to find ways of accurately representing rock formations and ice. He sketched in both oils specially treated to resist low temperatures and pen and ink to produce works of scientific exactitude that he would work up into finished pictures back in his studio. Wyttenbach recorded that the painter would frequently return to particular spots in the mountains to check his paintings’ topographical accuracy. In some pictures he included his travelling companions to give a sense of both their industry and the scale of the scenery; in others he showed nature alone – oblivious to the existence of mankind.

In this painting, Snow Bridge and Rainbow in Gadmental (1778), now in the Kunstmuseum Basel, Wolf captured two rare natural phenomena: a snow arch carved by meltwater and a rainbow caused by the brief conjunction of sun and spray from a hidden waterfall. No human figure is to be seen; Wolf was the only witness to a vision that would pass within minutes as the sun moved on. This is a painting showing what nature can do away from prying eyes – a visual incarnation of the old philosophical saw, “If a tree falls in a forest…”

His mountain pictures may be images of wonder but for Wolf, objectivity came first and emotion followed. His paintings of glaciers and ice, such as the now-disappeared séracs – ice needles – of the Grindelwald Glacier, are today used by climate scientists to gauge the effects of climate heating in the Alps.

The paintings’ worth as works of art was not immediately apparent, however. In 1777, his plates for Wagner’s book, Remarkable Views of the Swiss Mountains, were exhibited in Bern but failed to sell. Wolf resumed his wanderings and died in straitened circumstances in a hospital in Heidelberg in 1783 aged only 48. He didn’t live to see the excitement caused when 30 aquatints of his pictures were published in Amsterdam just two years later, nor how romantic painters such as Caspar David Friedrich and JMW Turner followed his example and climbed into the mountains. There, where Wolf had found the work of geological time, they found reflections of the human soul.

[See also: The secrets of Louise Bourgeois’s wardrobe]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror