Bridge House, Ambleside, Cumbria, England
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E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (eds.), The Works of John Ruskin, 1903-1912: vol.5, 1904 (Modern Painters, vol.3), p.xxvii; vol. 6, 1904 (Modern Painters, vol. 4), pl.38 (right) and pp.283 and 288; vol. 21, 1906 (The Ruskin Collection at Oxford), p.278, no. 119; and vol. 38, 1912, (Catalogue of Ruskin's Drawings), p.267, no. 1121;
Ruskin first saw the Alps at the age of 14 in 1833. He returned many times including 1835, 1842, 1844, 1845, 1846 and 1849 when the present drawing was executed.
Ruskin’s Swiss Tour of 1849, was intended partly as a rest from his recent undertaking, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which had been published in May and partly at preparation for further work on his Modern Painters. He arrived at Zermatt on 2 August and remained for a week before returning to Chamonix. The present drawing, was made that first day. Ruskin recorded in his diary: 'A lovely day with sharp north wind. Drawing Matterhorn. Then up to a bed of overhanging rocks which I thought were marble, but found to be a pure and lovely quartz rock in thin folia.' He wrote in more detail to his father, who had remained in Geneva, ‘I had glorious weather, and on Friday… I got up to a promontory projecting from the foot of the Matterhorn and lay on the rocks and drew it at my ease. I was about three hours at work, as quietly as if in my study at Denmkar Hill, though on a peak of barrey crag above a glacier and at least 9000 feet above sea’. (Cook and Wedderburn, op. cit.)
Ruskin made detailed descriptions and drawings of the Alps, including of the Matterhorn in Volume IV of Modern Painters, which he sub-titled ‘Of Mountain Beauty’. He not only drew the mountain, but also took a number of photographs in order to check the accuracy of his studies He describes the ‘Matterhorn or Mount Vervin [standing] on the whole unrivalled among the Alps, being terminated on two of its sides, by precipices which produce on the imagination nearly the effect of verticality’ (Cook and Wedderburn, op. cit, p. 283). The first successful ascent of the Matterhorn did not take place until July 1865, despite various attempts, and Ruskin’s detailed drawings and photographs were intended to help the artist and the viewer fully understand the intrinsic nature and form of the mountain. The present drawing, along with the version in the Guild of St George, formed two halves of plate 38, in Modern Painters, which was engraved by J. C. Armytage, an engraver who Ruskin particularly favoured.
On 9 August, just before leaving, Ruskin made another study of the mountain, but taken from a different angle, from further east from the moat of the Riffelhorn. (now in the Guild of St George at Sheffield) . A third drawing from the same trip is now in the Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard.
Ruskin was fascinated by the effects of perspective on mountains and particularly on the Matterhorn, recording, 'No mountain in the Alps produces a more vigorous impression of peakedness than the Matterhorn. In Professor Forbes's work on the Alps, it is spoken of as an "obelisk" of rock... Naturally … we assume the mass to be a peak. However, Ruskin goes on to explain that the line we assume to be the steep slope of its side, is in fact ‘a perspective line. It is in reality perfectly horizontal…more or less irregular and broken, but so nearly horizontal that, after some prolonged examination of the data [he has] collected about the Matterhorn, [he is] at this moment in doubt which is its top. (Cook and Wedderburn, op. cit, p. 224).
Despite the scientific nature of Ruskin’s study and his desire to capture the ‘peakedness’ of the Matterhorn, the romantic nature of the subject with its awe-inspiring dominance of its surroundings clearly captivated the artist.
Engraved: By J.C. Armytage for Modern Painters, 1856, vol. 4, pl. 38