Edwin Landseer

British, 1802–1873

Man Proposes, God Disposes, 1864
Oil on canvas, 36 x 96 in. (91.4 x 243.7 cm)
Royal Holloway, University of London

Edwin Landseer’s painting can be interpreted as a commentary on humanity’s hubris and ultimate powerlessness against nature. It was inspired by the loss of life and wealth searching for the British explorer John Franklin, presumed lost during his quest for the Northwest Passage in 1845.

Amidst a desolate landscape, the artist gruesomely depicts two polar bears devouring the Union Jack and a human rib. During the painting’s exhibition at the Royal Academy, viewers would have associated the bears’ carnivorous act with the rumors of cannibalism that surrounded Franklin’s voyage, which resulted in the death of 129 men. Man Proposes, God Disposes captures the heightened fear and fascination with the frozen North that gripped Britain after Franklin’s disappearance.

The polar bear, once regarded as a ferocious symbol of the Arctic, has recently been transformed into an icon of preservation. Currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) predicts that populations will decline by about 30 percent over the next 45 years due to climate change.