The wintery weather and a recent trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art had me looking back through the archives at some of my favorite polar scenes. These pictures painted in the 1800’s capture the spirit of adventure; of man’s exploration and dominance over nature, while also expressing its tenuous hold. Today’s world of digital devices and instantaneous connections makes it hard to imagine embarking on a tall ship for destinations unknown.
The first picture is my favorite. It has it all – tall ships, icebergs and an abundance of arctic animals watching the men on their well-coordinated fishing expedition. The narwhales, seals, walruses and polar bears take center stage, dwarfed by the tall ships and icebergs that hover nearby with domineering verticality.
This second one caught my eye with its quirky charm. Displayed in a side gallery in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was struck by the doll-like quality of the polar bear’s head, specifically his human looking eye gazing at the ships. The scale and flattening effect of the tonal range gives a sense of melancholy to the polar bear looming over his frozen perch while creating a sense of danger for the fragile looking ships in the distance.
In my search for the two paintings above, I found this other Raleigh painting from the National Gallery’s collection. The sense of danger in this depiction of a menacing attack is heightened by the use of saturated color and a composition that focuses precisely on the polar bear’s massive claw. The ship in the background echoes the seal’s struggle for life as it approaches an iceberg.