The Artist-Naturalist-Explorer

The Artist Naturalist Explorer

Early polar landscapes were based on oral and written accounts by seamen. Only during the 18th century were artists first invited to join expeditions. This practice began with Captain James Cook (British, 1728–1779), who explored the Pacific Ocean, crossed the Antarctic Circle in 1773, and plotted the coasts of Alaska and Northeast Siberia in 1778. He revolutionized exploration by including scientists and artists who advanced understanding of the planet’s geography, anthropology, and fauna and flora. Cook’s voyages fostered the development of the artist-naturalist-explorer.

The public vicariously experienced the planet’s icy frontiers through illustrated journals, atlases, magazines, and paintings on exhibition. Before photography, drawing was the preferred medium for rapidly recording a motif. Many naval officers were required to study drawing and subsequently became artists. Their  sketches often formed the foundation for paintings and published prints. 

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 glimpse into the British style of expedition that ignored the advantageous environmental adaptions of Inuit culture. Here, we see explorers dressed in tight wool and flannel garments without hoods, rejecting warm fur and sealskin parkas. Their heavy expedition sleds, pulled by men, contrasted with the indigenous people’s light, flexible sledges powered by dogs. Explorers lived in freezing tents instead of learning the art of building igloos.

Top banner image: Barthelemy Lauvergne, View of Smeremberg Bay, 1839, from Voyage of the Scientific Commission of the North in Scandinavia, Lapland, Spitzberg, during 1838, 1839 and 1840, lithograph.