The Artist-Naturalist-Explorer

The Expeditions of Captain James Cook

Early polar paintings were based on mariners’ oral and written accounts. Not until the eighteenth century were artists commissioned to accompany expeditions. This tradition began with Captain James Cook (British, 1728–1779), who explored the Pacific, crossed the Antarctic Circle in 1773, and charted the coasts of Alaska and Northeast Siberia in 1778. He revolutionized the notion of exploration by including scientists and artists who advanced public understanding of the planet’s geography, anthropology, and fauna and flora. Cook’s voyages marked the emergence of the artist-naturalist-explorer.

The public learned about the world’s icy frontiers through illustrated journals, atlases, magazines, and exhibition paintings. Before the advent of photography, drawing was the most adaptable medium for quickly capturing a motif. Many naval officers were also artists whose sketches were often made into paintings and prints for publication. 

Admiral Richard Brydges Beechey (British,1808–1895), Captain Markham’s most northerly encampment, 1877, oil on paper, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Richard Beechey provides a fascinating glimpse into the British style of expedition that often disregarded Inuit culture: explorers preferred wearing tight wool and flannel with no hoods rather than warm fur or sealskin parkas. Their heavy expedition sleds, pulled by men, contrasted with the Inuits’ light, flexible sledges powered by dogs. Explorers lived in freezing tents instead of learning to build igloos.

“Cook’s voyages marked the emergence of the artist-naturalist-explorer.”