Wandering around the Musée d’art et d’histoire on a visit to the Swiss town of Neuchâtel, I stopped in front of the monumental painting Effet de soleil sur les Hautes Alpes du Valais en face de la chaîne du Mont-Rose. It was the work of Alexandre Calame (1810–1864), a Swiss painter who made Alpine scenes his calling card. White-capped mountains formed the extended backdrop to a range of bare, brown slopes and an untroubled turquoise lake, the entire upper half of the painting being given over to a clear blue sky depicted in subtle gradations of colour. It was the sky rather than the barren scene of rocks and mountains which caught my eye, and the empirically informed way in which Calame had rendered its nuances as the bleu bleuet became powdery and then deepened into ultramarine and cyan above the range of snow-covered peaks in the distance.
What the poet and mining engineer Novalis called ‘atmosphereology’ had matured by the nineteenth century into meteorology — a new science that caught the public imagination. Every new science comes with its own instruments, and one which was popular in Calame’s day was the cyanometer. This analogue instrument registers the intensity of blueness of the atmosphere. It was developed by the remarkable Swiss geologist and inventor Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, and quickly became sufficiently well known for Byron to lampoon it in Don Juan as an instrument for measuring the blueness of ‘bluestockings’ — independent and educated women.
For Saussure, the sky held “in its grandeur and its dazzling purity, an element of death and infinite sadness.”
Saussure’s hand-painted simple circular cyanometer had fifty-two shades from white (‘zero degrees’) to black (‘51 degrees’) to measure the blue of the sky, which Saussure believed was due to the agency of moist particles in the air. Saussure, who is generally credited as being the first Alpinist, was much taken by the distinctive blue of Alpine skies. For Saussure, the sky held “in its grandeur and its dazzling purity, an element of death and infinite sadness.”