Historical pictorial sources on the state of glaciers

The advancing Lower Grindelwald Glacier with the Mettenberg, colour aquatint by Caspar Wolf, 1774. Source: Samuel Nussbaumer.

Glaciers in mountainous areas react sensitively to climate changes, and their reactions integrate temperature and precipitation trends across all seasons. Glacier fluctuations are among the clearest indications of warming and cooling tendencies that nature has provided us. Besides written evidence, historical pictorial representations of glaciers in the form of drawings, paintings, prints, and early photographs allow us to reconstruct glacier extents in the Alps from the early 17th century onwards. Satisfactory quantities of historical material are only available for those glaciers that achieved the necessary degree of fame early on to attract travellers, scientists, and artists. Pictorial representations in painting and graphic arts date back to the early 17th century, but only appear in large numbers with the emerging popularity of Alpine travel during the 18th century. Photographs are available from the end of the 1840s.

The Lower Grindelwald Glacier in the Bernese Oberland is probably the best studied glacier in the world in this respect. Heinz J. Zumbühl reconstructed its fluctuations on the basis of over 360 pictorial documents in combination with chronicles of the local population and reports by naturalists (Zumbühl 1980; Zumbühl 2009; Zumbühl et al. 2016). The Mont Blanc region, with its prominent glaciers such as the Mer de Glace or the Glacier des Bossons, was also frequently visited by travellers, scientists, and artists, especially since the mid-18th century (Nussbaumer et al. 2012).

The Rhone Glacier close to Gletsch in 1855/56, photography. Source: Alexandre Pierre Bertrand / Association Valaisanne d’Images Anciennes.

Evaluating historical pictorial documents is often difficult and requires careful analysis, especially before the 19th century. To enable optimal comparisons regarding glacier extents, the pictorial documents should fulfil three requirements:

1.   The dating of the pictorial document has to be known or reconstructed, i.e., it must be possible to determine the time at which the artist portrayed the glacier.

2.   The glacier and its surroundings must be depicted in a topographically correct manner.

3.   The artist’s position in the field should be known.


The Euro-Climhist database currently contains around 300 images of glaciers, especially the two Grindelwald glaciers and the Mer de Glace. The images can be assigned to one of these five image types:

Z = drawing; G = oil painting; D = print; F = photograph; K = map

In the case of oil paintings, it should be noted that they were often, but not always, created from natural studies (drawings, partly with watercolour and gouache). In this case, the date of the painting usually refers to the year of completion in the atelier. However, the year of the painting is not necessarily identical with the year of the artist’s journey to the Alps, which we need for reconstructing glacier extent. In the case of graphic sheets (prints) and photographs, extensive research is often necessary and travel dates can usually only be obtained through the artist’s biography or comparisons of styles.