Illustrating Arctic Exploration
December 04, 2018
In 1853, physician Elisha Kent Kane (1820-1857) led the Second Grinnell Expedition from London, England, to Rensselaer Harbor, Greenland. Kane, an experienced Arctic explorer and member of the First Grinnell Expedition in 1850, charted the coasts of Smith Sound and the Kane Basin in Greenland. American merchant Henry Grinnell (1799-1874) financed both tours, launched as search expeditions for the 1845 lost Franklin Polar Expedition.
After an arduous year at sea, Kane's vessel, the Advance became icebound. After two treacherous winters, Dr. Kane and his crew were forced to abandon the Advance. They navigated through the bay in their small whaling boats. Before abandoning ship, Kane and his crew removed the figure-head from their ship as a remembrance of their journey. Kane described the experience in the 1856 book Arctic Explorations, Vol.II, writing:...“Our Figure-head, ‘The Fair Augusta,’ the little blue girl with pink cheeks, who had lost her breast by an iceberg, and her nose by a nip off ‘Bedevilled Reach,’ was taken from our bows and place aboard the ‘Hope.” “She is at any rate wood,’ said the men, when I hesitated about giving them the additional burden, ‘and if we cannot carry her far we can burn her.’”
Artist and Freemason Albert Operti (1852-1927), depicted Kane and his crew abandoning their icebound ship in his 1855 painting titled, Farewell. Operati, a scenic artist for the Metropolitan Opera House and later exhibit artist for the American Museum of Natural History, often focused on Arctic exploration in his paintings. The print shown here, in the Museum & Library collection and made after the painting in 1889, shows six men from the exploration team with dogs and sleds, preparing to board their escape boats. In the lower right hand corner, Operati included a square and compasses, the letter “G,” with a walrus and iceberg, illustrating his Masonic affiliation. Kane, also a Freemason, was a member of Franklin Lodge no. 134 in Philadelphia. Kane Lodge No. 454 in New York City, chartered in 1859, was named after and dedicated to Kane, who died in Havana, Cuba, in 1857.
According to an 1889 edition of The Freemasons Repository, Operati presented the Farewell painting to Kane Lodge, also in possession of the aforementioned figure-head from the Advance. To see more prints and paintings from the Museum collection depicting scenes from American history visit our new exhibition, "The Art of American History," on view through November 2019.