Art and Arctic Exploration

Art and Arctic Exploration

Whaling and the Quest for the Northwest Passage

The polar environment captivated the public’s imagination during the seventeenth century when Dutch artists painted the earliest seascapes of the Arctic. They depicted an icy ecosystem navigated by explorers seeking new hunting grounds of a flourishing whaling industry. Based on written descriptions, artists also imagined the dangerous passage of sailors in search of northern routes to Asian markets.

The pursuit of Earth’s riches, national prestige, and personal glory sparked exploration over the next centuries. Scientific inquiry was often a secondary motivation.

Abraham Storck (Dutch, 1644–1708), Dutch Whalers in Spitzbergen, 1690, oil on canvas, Stichting. Rujksmuseum het Zuiderzeemuseum, Amsterdam

Abraham Storck portrays the hunt of a bowhead whale off the frigid coast of Spitzbergen (current day Svalbard).  He includes a view of an onshore processing plant that converted whale blubber into oil. By the late seventeenth century, almost 150 whaling ships plied the Arctic waters. The slaughter of these majestic animals literally fueled the Dutch economy. Overhunting resulted in the near extinction of bowhead whales. Seamen began exploring other regions in search of prey, including the oceans teaming with life surrounding Antarctica.

Top banner image: Frederick William Beechey (British, 1796-1856), HMS Hecla in Baffin Bay, illustration from Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Performed in the Years, 1819-20 in His Majesty’s Ships Hecla and Griper, 11 x 9 x 1 3/4 in. (28 x 23 x 4.5 cm)