Imagining Ice:

Glaciers and Icebergs in Mid-19th-Century Norwegian Landscape and Hull Maritime Painting

Isabelle Gapp

University of York

From the decks of the Arctic whaler Hope, the then ship’s doctor, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote of the icebergs surrounding him, that the “whole sea [was] covered with them to the horizon [… .] Their dazzling whiteness made the sea seem bluer by contrast”.[1] This was in 1880. The nineteenth century spawned a fascination in literature, art and science for the world of ice - from the icebergs that calved off the Arctic ice-shelves, to the landlocked glaciers of Europe that were continuously shaping the landscape. Although Conan-Doyle’s words hark from nearly forty years after those works featured within this paper, they evoke the sheer vastness of these monolithic structures, in contrast with the more fragile vessels navigating these dazzling, yet dangerous waters. While the imminent danger of the icebergs was felt by those whaling ships based in the Arctic seas, and was visualised in the work of Hull School painters James H. Wheldon and John Ward, the magnificence of the then-receding glaciers of Norway inspired Romantic painters Johan Christian Dahl and Peder Balke. Through artistic and arctic exploration, and in the retelling of stories, the depiction of ice bore the same romanticised depiction - angular, dramatic, and cathedral-like in its construction. This paper compares the approaches taken by the previously named artists, and considers how these works have contributed to a historical and scientific record of an ever-changing and vanishing landscape. Moreover, it positions them in the context of a century-long fascination with ice, which extended throughout the art of the circumpolar world.

Figure 1

Fig. 1: Peder Balke, The Glacier, Jostedalsbreen (1840s), oil on canvas, 128 x 174cm, Göteborgs Konstmuseum, Gothenburg

Figure 2

Fig. 2: Johan Christian Dahl, View of Nigardsbreen in Jostedalen (1839/1844), oil on canvas, 100 x 136cm. Bergen Kunstmuseum, Rasmus Meyer Collection

The discussion of glaciers and icebergs in parallel with one another is more commonly undertaken in the context of science, primarily concerning the study of climate change. With glaciers we can observe the changes that have occurred throughout the centuries in terms of temperature; at which points the glacier was growing, with rural archival records, for example, marking those times when farmers found themselves forcibly evicted by the swell of ice; and when and where it was receding. To appreciate the evolution of these glaciers, of which the focus here is the Jostedal Glacier in western Norway, visual records have been used in countless scientific papers chronicling their changing size and the rapid development of global warming. One of the foremost examples can be found in the work of Dahl, a contemporary, and later room-mate of the German artist Caspar David Friedrich - whose own dramatic icescapes are frequently associated with the nineteenth-century fascination with the romanticised idea of the north. During his lifetime, Dahl undertook two paintings of the Nigardsbreen (or Nigard glacier) which itself was only a part of the larger, Jostedalsbreen, which remains to this day, the largest glacier in Central Europe. A branch of this same glacier also acted as the backdrop for Balke’s The Jostedal Glacier (Fig. 1) - a highly atmospheric and sinister visualisation of this vast sheet of ice.

The choice of Nigardsbreen as the subject matter for Dahl’s work, View of Nigardsbreen in Jostedalen (Fig. 2) - a rural farm situated at the tongue of the glacier - suggests a harmonious relationship between man and ice, and yet, less than a century earlier this glacier had decimated a farm from where it got its name. Over a period of nearly fifty years, from 1700-1748, this branch of the glacier grew by four kilometres, destroying not only the farmer’s crop but consuming the farm itself. Yet, despite the devastating effects of this uncontrollable force, the glacier ceased expanding in 1748, even though the effects of the ‘Little Ice Age’, as it was called, continued to be felt throughout Scandinavia into the early nineteenth century. At the point of Dahl’s sketching trip in 1839, the Nigardsbreen is known to have been at the point of receding. However, with Dahl having executed the finished painting upon returning to his studio in Dresden, and only completing it in 1844, one must bear in mind that this depicts a moment of an indeterminable landscape that had already faded. How scientifically relevant Dahl’s work is can be therefore debated, but it does provide us with an insight into how the artist approached the mystical nature of ice.

This painting also puts forward a number of questions regarding the subject matter. Are we looking upon a romanticised recollection of a farm long since gone? Are we looking upon the return of man to a part of the world previously made inhabitable? Or do we see a farm on the brink of destruction, before the glacier ceased expanding? Dahl leaves this open to interpretation. The focus of the piece is not on who these farmers are, but rather on the fragility of humankind and what is human-made, in the face of something unpredictable and natural. What we do see, however, is the attention to detail paid in painting the ice. Not only has Dahl captured the fissuring of this icy mass, where vast crevasses extend beyond where the eye can see, but the iridescent blue of the ice not only tells us something about the nature of the glacier, that the ice is heavily compacted, but also brings with it its own temperature gauge. The icy blue with which Dahl has painted the closest reaches of the ice, emits a sense of the cold; it is something less familiar, further removed from our basic understanding of winter and of snow.

Figure 3

Fig. 3: James H. Wheldon, Diana and Chase in the Arctic (c.1857), oil on canvas, 65.5 x 90.5cm, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM.2007:1323

This same daunting fear instilled by ice, emerges in a very different painting. Whereas Dahl, the careful observer, approaches the ice from a distance, Wheldon, in his painting, Diana and Chase in the Arctic (Fig. 3), overwhelms the canvas with the towering blocks of ice that have encircled the whaling vessels. The rising face of an iceberg, jagged around the edges, like the spires of a cathedral, frames a scene in which polar bears, diminutive in size by comparison, appear to be foraging around on the flat base of this otherwise daunting iceberg, and where inconspicuous whalers are hard at work on a nearby sheet of floating ice. The scene is serene. It is the vast prowess of the ship which holds the viewer’s attention. Larger and more superior than the icebergs surrounding it, yet it is them which hold the potential to send it to the depths of the sea. As also identified in Doyle’s 1880 quotation, “icebergs were the perfect motif to satisfy the curiosity and romanticism of Western viewers”.[2] How they inform science, unlike the depictions of the glaciers, is more tenuous. They are rather representations of a far-flung landscape that the artist could only imagine and create from tales told to him.

Figure 4

Fig. 4: James H. Wheldon, Hull Whaler 'Harmony' (after William John Huggins), (date unknown, mid to late 1850s?), oil on canvas, 94 x 124 cm, KINCM:2007.1441, Hull Maritime Museum

A 2014 exhibition entitled Vanishing Ice considered the role of visual representations of ice over the last two hundred years, and what these can tell us about our role in this ever-changing landscape. Here, the curator wrote that, “in the same way that no snowflake looks the same, each iceberg has its own character, which perpetually changes as it journeys from the tongue of a glacier through the open waters”.[3] The iceberg and the glacier are symbiotic. It is through the melting of glaciers that icebergs break away, and as a result each one is different from the other; varying in size and in nature. The individuality of icebergs can also be seen in Wheldon’s Hull Whaler ‘Harmony’ (after William John Huggins) (Fig. 4). While the activities of the whalers occupy the foreground, it is the mystical ice structure in the background which catches the eye. This extravagant iceberg, more decorative than dangerous in its depiction, provides us with an idea of the romanticism that surrounded Arctic exploration. In his description of Frederick Edwin Church’s The Icebergs (1861), Tim Barringer writes that,

The icebergs presented a unique phenomenon by being ancient natural structures like rock faces which were, however, impermanent and constantly changing. These cathedrals of ice are melting before our very eyes, crumbling away and dissolving into the sea.[4]

Figure 5

Fig. 5: John Ward, Whalers in the Arctic (1834), oil on canvas, 47 x 65 cm, KINCM:2009.1124, Hull Maritime Museum

In Wheldon’s painting we see these words brought to life. Here, they are delicate rather than overwhelming, the iceberg looming behind the Harmony appears as a spire of an otherwise grand cathedral, the rest of which is submerged beneath the water. The depiction of icebergs in Wheldon’s work gives them a fragility that is not found in the work of his colleague, and famed Hull School painter Ward, who brings to his paintings the brutality of icebergs. For example, in Whalers in the Arctic (Fig. 5), the icebergs and ice floes encircle the ships. Here, the vessels are navigating narrow paths between the towering blocks of ice that emerge from the sea. These are not delicate, idealised visions of icebergs, visualisations of expeditionary tales; rather they are vast monolithic structures which tower over the surrounding vessels. Whereas one might compare Ward’s work to that of Balke, one might compare Wheldon’s approach to ice to that of Dahl, finding in its structure something beautiful, and in the case of Dahl’s glacier one sees the blue veins of the ice appearing in the cracks that have formed.

Figure 6

Fig. 6: John Ward, Isabella and Swan of Hull in the Arctic Regions, 19th century, Oil on canvas, 59.69 x 85.09 cm, Hull Trinity House Hull

Although speculation and urban legend have suggested that artists from the Hull School journeyed to the Arctic, there is no definitive proof, as both Martha Cattell and Jason Edwards establish in their writing for the Turner and the Whale exhibition catalogue. Yet among these myths is the suggestion that Ward was unique among his colleagues for having actually spent time on an Arctic whaling ship in 1823 from which he was inspired to paint The ‘Swan and ‘Isabella.’ (Fig. 6). Whether this accounts for the stylistic differences in the depiction of icebergs when compared to the likes of Wheldon, we cannot say. However, they do bear strong resemblance to the heavy formation of ice that descends from Balke’s The Glacier, Jostedalsbreen. Here, the ice is strong and powerful, submerged in a moody and atmospheric light, where the red tinge and the almost lava-like texture of the ice is more volcanic in nature than glacial. Was this Balke’s reality or are we looking upon something fictional? Balke is not known to have ever visited the Jostedal Glacier, and it is therefore more likely that he would have seen the work by his mentor and colleague Dahl whilst in Dresden between 1843-44. Moreover, the mountainous backdrop given to the glacier suggests that Balke adapted sketches made from an earlier trip to the north of Norway in 1832, and assimilated these into an imagined glacial landscape. The work therefore of both Balke and Dahl bears stronger resemblance to the ice-scapes of the Hull painters who, for all that the evidence suggests, envisioned these tumultuous and frozen seas, creating a scene commemorative of the numerous whaling expeditions undertaken during the mid-19th century.

Figure 7

Fig. 7: Anna Boberg, Norwegian Glacier (date unknown), oil on canvas, 47 x 56cm, Private Collection, Sweden

Before drawing this paper to a close, there are two further points I would like to make. The first of which is the role in which ice came to play in painting and exploration throughout the following century. Whereas the works mentioned so far emerged at a time where Arctic exploration was at the fore, with the failed and tragic Franklin Expedition of 1845, at the beginning of the 20th century, we see an emergence of a new fascination with the poles, where in 1911-12 explorers and adventurers raced for the South Pole. Periods of Arctic painting appear to correlate with moments of heightened polar exploration. At the beginning of the 20th century, artists across the circumpolar explored the winter landscape. In the work of the Swedish painter Anna Boberg, the glacial structure which occupies the canvas of her painting, Norwegian Glacier (Fig. 7), recalls Dahl’s blue-green glacier in Nigard, yet here the artist has become the explorer - the viewer is now confronted by the unruly nature of this vast expanse of ice. Later, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, we witness on the other side of the Atlantic, the Canadian painters A.Y. Jackson and Lawren Harris endeavouring to explore the far reaches of Canada. Through their two-month long journey on an Arctic cargo vessel, the two painters explored the Canadian Arctic, going so far as Baffin Island near the mouth of the North-West passage. The resulting works from this trip shaped the path Harris’ career, in particular, took. He would spend decades re-envisaging those sketches carried out on his trip, producing simplified representations of the icebergs, which had inspired him on his journey with Jackson. The linear form of these floating structures is a far cry from the work of Wheldon and Ward, and yet is perhaps a natural development of these original ideas - where the ice is no longer part of the story, but is rather intentionally made the centre of attention.

The overall implication of all of these works, however, is the role they play in informing us of the changes being made to the landscape over the centuries. Icebergs and glaciers have become identifiable features in assessing the impact of climate change, and the ongoing damage humans are inflicting on the planet. Here, “the nineteenth-century picture of an earth whose surface is continually being modified by very slow natural processes is being replaced by the image of a planet that is being altered by rapid processes caused by humans”.[5] On an artistic level, the paintings of Dahl, Balke, Wheldon and Ward reveal a beauty and fascination surrounding the idea of ice. They capture the romantic nature of the Arctic and of polar exploration, at a time when the Arctic was not only a place for adventurers and explorers, but existed to support an industry and community of people. Although these paintings contribute to an understanding of how ice and the Arctic were depicted across the circumpolar world, they are also specimens of a landscape quickly vanishing before our eyes. Today we hear of glaciers and ice-sheets melting and progressively disappearing; and with the increase of icebergs and the subsequent rising sea levels, this means that the nineteenth-century mysticism and romanticism surrounding the Arctic has quickly become a daunting reality.


  1. Janet B. Pascal, Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Baker Street (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 32.

  2. Barbara C. Matilsky, Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art, 1775-2012 (Washington: The Whatcom Museum, 2013), 63.

  3. Matilsky, Vanishing Ice, 63.

  4. Tim Barringer and Andrew Wilton, eds, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820-1880 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 226.

  5. Ben Orlove, The Place of Glaciers in Natural and Cultural Landscapes in Darkening Peaks: Glacial Retreat, Science and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 3.