Art and Arctic Exploration

Whaling and the Quest for the Northwest Passage

The polar environment entered the public imagination during the seventeenth century when Dutch artists painted the earliest seascapes of the Arctic. They represented the icy waters navigated by explorers searching for northern routes to Asian markets and the hunting grounds of a booming whaling industry.

The quest for the 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 icy coast of Spitsbergen.  He also presents a view of an onshore processing plant that rendered whale blubber into oil. By the late seventeenth century, almost 150 whaling ships plied the Arctic waters, providing the wealth that fueled the Dutch economy. Overhunting resulted in the near – extinction of bowhead whales. Seamen moved on to other regions for their prey, including the oceans off Antarctica.

Top Banner Image: Bartheleny Lauvergne, View of Smeremberg Bay, 1839, From Voiges of the Scientific Commission of the North durrieng 1838, 1839 & 1840