Grudging Love for Country in Switzerland and Norway

“What are men to rocks and mountains?” Elizabeth Bennett asks her aunt in Pride and Prejudice. Although Lizzy wants to deceive herself after “disappointment” regarding certain men, some artists would wholeheartedly agree with her, at least regarding their paintings’ subjects. Rocks and mountains, as well as forests, snow, and rivers, appear incomparable in the hands of the Norwegian and Swiss landscape painters currently on display at the National Gallery, London. A rock might seem boring on its own, but with metallic waves hurling towards the base of a crag, even larger waves of glowing cloud rolling impossibly close to the ocean, and a tiny heroic figure with a spear standing against it all, a rock is breathtaking in Scene from the Era of Norwegian Sagas. This painting, as well as others from the National Gallery’s collection, is collected in Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscape Paintings from the Lunde Collection by Christopher Riopelle and Sarah Herring.

Landscape painting helps to develop artistically a national identity, but Swiss and Norwegian landscapes did not constitute an important style until the 1800s. Each country’s artists originally regarded their homelands as artistically inferior to other places in Europe. Norwegian and Swiss artists initially travelled across the continent to warmer climates, such as Italy, in order to use the overpowering sunlight they believed necessary for their work. But in 1820, Johan Christian Dahl, a Norwegian painter, utterly confused his compatriots on a trip to Italy when he began painting landscapes of Norway from memory. Once he left his homeland, he realized that the rocks and mountains that struck him as incomparable were the ones he could no longer see. Perversely enough, he felt that he could only draw inspiration from his home’s scenery as long as he was away from it (or, perhaps, away from the cold?), and he spent much time as an expatriate in Dresden painting Norway. Likewise, in Switzerland, the Alps were considered “enemies” for their dangerous terrain until the Age of Enlightenment. It took naturalists like Horace Bénédict de Saussure, who wrote on the botany, geology, and topography of Alps in the late eighteenth century, to convince Switzerland that the mountains were, at least, “Beautiful Horrors.” Once they were convinced, however, Swiss painters produced representations of their country with a sincere love for their own “rocks and mountains.”

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