Piz Bernina, Switzerland

Nina Foster

Growing up, I was lucky enough to hike all over the country with family and friends, and to absorb their enthusiasm for the outdoors. I cherished every trip, from strolling through the woods to navigating a geyser field—but I was always most thrilled by the mountains. So I was elated to attend a university in Cambridge, just a few hours from New Hampshire’s magnificent White Mountains. As a leader in the Harvard Outing Club, I’ve visited these mountains many times with fellow leaders, friends, and members of the Harvard community. Every time we drive to a trailhead, shrouded by peaks on either side, I feel giddy. Albert Bierstadt’s Piz Bernina, Switzerland (about 1880–90) perfectly captures this scene that incites my giddiness, the awe I feel when admiring such towering landforms. When I look at this painting, I can feel the sun on my back as I gaze at Piz Bernina from afar. I can smell the dense forest of evergreens that dominate the foreground. I imagine the euphoria of hiking through the Alps with wonderful company, joyous as we connect with the natural world and marvel at its beauty.

The pandemic has taken a lot from me. I’ve lost loved ones, the luxury of certainty, the ease of socialization, and so much more. But one thing that has remained constant is my solace in the outdoors. At a time when indoor gatherings are filled with unease, nature has become an essential setting for connection, mindfulness, and comfort. When international travel feels unattainable, Bierstadt’s painting can transport me to Switzerland, even if just for a moment. It also reminds me of the power of perseverance: this mountain isn’t moving anytime soon, and these trees’ needles will remain a vibrant green in the face of harsh environmental conditions. Everything may feel rocky and unpredictable right now, but stability can always be found, and exquisite spots like Piz Bernina will be waiting when the world recovers.

Piz Bernina, Switzerland is a snapshot of foreign terrain that feels incredibly intimate. The painting is small for a landscape—roughly 14 inches tall and 19 inches wide—but with such close attention to detail, the artist captures the essence of the sublime, prompting an emotional response in me that exceeds the ordinary experience. Piz Bernina is the highest mountain in the Eastern Alps and commands respect, its snowy peaks made more prominent by the contrasting sea of evergreens. Although the mountain cannot be seen in its entirety, its magnitude is undeniable—there’s nothing like a 13,283-foot mountain to make you feel small. The work was made more than a century ago, but it has not lost its influence. Every time I visit this painting I feel inspired to get outside; I have an overwhelming desire to lace up my hiking boots and venture into the great outdoors.


Nina Foster was a 2021–22 work-study student in the MFA Ambassador program. Nina studies English at Harvard College.