When David Rosenthal started painting almost 50 years ago, he did not intend to capture a decades-long process of glacial retreat. But his current exhibit, Painting at the End of the Ice Age, underscores how anthropogenic climate change has impacted the iciest parts of the planet. By combining his love of art with his scientific knowledge, Rosenthal hopes the exhibit will expose a wide group of audiences to the impacts of global warming.
Below, Rosenthal discusses what inspired him to become an artist and his motivations for the exhibit.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
You’ve been an artist for almost five decades. What motivated you to start painting and why do you focus on glacial landscapes?
When I began painting around 1973, my interest was landscape because I always had a love of nature. I believe I was drawn to cold landscapes because I grew up in Maine; I did not like the hot summers, pollen and bugs. The first frosts were a source of relief when I was a kid. I loved the cold winters, especially the ice and snow. I was fascinated by the erratic boulders left by the glaciers [in the last Ice Age].
I had no interest in art when I was young. I wanted to study physics. It was not until I failed as a college student that I began to draw and paint for fun. I taught myself to paint, and I maintain that I learned more about painting from physics than from any art class. In 1976, I graduated from college with a B.A. in Art and Science. My degree was not very valuable for getting a job, so when I got a chance to go to Cordova, Alaska to work in a cannery, I took it. I discovered that although the ice age was long over in Maine, Cordova was surrounded by glaciers—remnants of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet.
I began painting glacial landscapes as well as other beautiful Alaskan landscapes. Over time, I traveled to glacial landscapes around the world. About six or seven years ago, I looked back and realized my work had recorded glaciers retreating and other effects of climate change. I began creating my exhibit using both existing work as well as new paintings created specifically to illustrate the retreat of many of the glaciers I have become so familiar with.
What led you to create your exhibit now?
It was never my intention to produce the exhibit all those years ago. My friend said it best: you’ve been working on this exhibit for over 40 years without even realizing it. Science has always been the foundation of my work. My paintings are from years of observation and analysis of the natural world—more real than photos to human observers because you see what I see. An image from a camera is created from one point in space and a fraction of a second in time. When I draw a scene, I look into the shadows and the light. My visual system edits the details based on my experiences and emotions. I believe my paintings are the best for conveying the reality of the retreat of the ice and other global warming effects.
The exhibit was first shown in 2018, at the Valdez Museum. Then in 2019, a larger and improved version was shown at the Cordova Museum. In 2022, the exhibit grew and was shown at the Pratt Museum in Homer, and most recently the largest improved version is at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau until March 2024. The exhibit will always evolve because of a continuously changing world. I hope it will travel for years to natural history museums and around the country as a tool to educate people about global warming.
Your landscapes present many different versions of glacial landscapes, from all-white, snowy scenes to vivid blues with running water. What role does color play in this project?
A color on a white page is different than the same color balanced by other colors in a painting. Despite the fact that blue is my favorite color, my use of blue is based on how I perceive color in nature, where it is created by the blue-refracted light of the sky. Even on a cloudy day, the grays are blue-gray, except in unusual conditions. My color choices are based on the reality of my vision.
You’ve participated in multiple art programs through both the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Science Foundation. How do you think programs like these—which bridge the arts and sciences—impact the way you understand science communication?
I’ve been very fortunate to find several art programs that have given me access to many of the environments I paint. Through the Alaska State Artists in Schools program, I would go to remote villages, teach kids and pursue my work in places I may never have seen. The U.S. Coast Guard has a program that gives artists access to their facilities. In my case, it allowed me to ride along their icebreakers, visiting places in the Arctic that could never be accessed otherwise.
The most important program was the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artist and Writers Program, which was about bringing back the human experience to the general public through painting, fine art, photography and literary arts—combining education and science. My work has always been based on science but these programs have added to my understanding of nature.
Why do you think it’s important to represent climate change through painting?
My images of ice retreating and other climate change effects are the best illustrations for the subject; they attract attention to the exhibit for the same reason art attracts attention. I once complained to a friend that this exhibit could make me a well-known artist but it’s too bad I am too old to really enjoy it. He reminded me if I was a young artist, I could not have created this exhibit.
I want this exhibit to show what I have witnessed. I want people who might ignore science to come and enjoy the exhibit and hopefully come away with more understanding of global warming.
Painting at the End of the Ice Age can be seen at the Alaska State Museum, in Juneau Alaska, until March 2024. The exhibit will appear at the Anchorage Museum in the fall of 2024 and has future plans to travel across the lower 48 states.