Thursday, 1 March 2007


A National Maritime Museum Talk by Ben Pollitt

Good afternoon and thank you for coming.

The title of the talk is “The Bear Hunt and Early Arctic Whaling”.

It will last about fifteen minutes.

Let’s start off by looking at the painting, “A Bear Hunt in the Arctic”.

It was painted by the Dutch artist Wigerus Vitringa in 1696.

On the left is a Dutch whaling flute, a flute being a cheap and efficient merchant ship of the 17th century.

Behind it is a high wall of ice, most probably an iceberg.

In the centre is an ice floe where a circle of hunters surround a polar bear, intending to kill it for its skin and its meat.

Beyond is another similar whaling vessel with two more dimly visible on the distant horizon.

In the foreground a bear is devouring a man while his companions look on.

Some throw spears at it, others seem less concerned, confused perhaps, frightened, either way, leaving the poor man to his fate.

Equally compelling is the landscape itself dominated by the grey tones of the clouds and the sky and the sea and the ice.

The chill in the air is almost palpable.

Vitringa used a number of techniques to get this sense of atmosphere across.

For one thing the viewpoint is low, about two thirds of the canvas is made up of sky. This is typical of Dutch marine painting of the 17th century.

It created challenges for artists, in particular, capturing light and depth, testing their skills at painting the sky a notoriously tricky business and also demanding a sophisticated understanding of perspective.

Vitringa handles both very well. The sky is beautifully handled, the sun obscured by the weight of the cloud, while also getting across this sense of depth.

Notice how those distant objects appear less distinct, more bluish than they would be if nearby.

It’s a technique called aerial or atmospheric perspective.

It is also a very well-organised painting.

It draws us in step by step.

The outline of the flute with its three masts shadowed by that iceberg, its form echoed again firstly by its companion ship to the right and once more by the faint outline of the ship on the horizon.

Like the ships in the background, the two whaleboats in the foreground reflect one another and help focus our attention on the centre of the action here, the ice floe on which the man is being attacked by a bear.

The outstretched arms of the two standing figures in the boats, as well as the spear captured in mid-flight, also serving as visual pointers.

Then to balance things out, we have these carefully arranged ice floes.

On the floe to the left we see the artist’s signature and the date of the painting.

1696 was an important year for Vitringa personally.

That year he was invited to become a member of the guild of St Luke in Alkmaar, a painter’s guild that only recognised masters were allowed to join.

Here's a picture of the man himself.

A man of many talents, as well as being a successful painter, he was also a doctor of law and a poet.

He was born in Leeuwarden in Friesland, a coastal region of Holland famous for its maritime heritage.

Perhaps it was his familiarity with the sea that led him to specialise in painting marine subjects.

That said, it seems very unlikely he would have witnessed this scene first-hand.

The brown polar bear is a bit of a giveaway.

Nevertheless it is an appealing painting with a lot of strong features.

What makes it particularly special, though, is the subject matter.

What on earth were the Dutch doing travelling all the way to the Arctic Circle?

The vessels as I said are whaling ships.

Whaling has existed for thousands of years.

The Vikings were famous whalers.

After them in the Middle-Ages came the Basques. The most skilled whalers in Europe and the first to make an organized industry of it.

They hunted whales mainly for their blubber which would be used as fuel for oil lamps and to make soap.

They also hunted whales for their baleen, the hard fibres attached to the upper jaw of the whale, the hairs on which are used to filter out foodstuff like plankton.

Now baleen has many commercial uses, both hard and elastic, it was used to make combs, for the ribs of parasols and to stiffen parts of women’s dresses, like corsets, hence the word basque for a tight-fitting corset.

By the 16th century, the British were getting in on the action, employing Basque whalers on their ships.

From around the 1570’s, English sailors were setting out from Hull to hunt for whales in the Arctic, particularly around an island north of Norway, called Spitsbergen, it is now called Svalbard.

The Dutch were soon to catch up with the British and in fact overtake them.

In the 1590’s the Dutch explorer Willem Barendsz’ reached Spitsbergen and then further east to Nova Zembla, now called Novaya Zemlya.

Unfortunately, tragically, his ships got stuck in the ice in Nova Zembla and Barendz was forced to spend the winter on the island, 500 miles from the North Pole.

Accounts were written about the expedition and the terrible conditions Barendsz and his crew had to endure, many froze to death, others died of scurvy and many were driven mad by the sunless days of the Arctic winter.

Finally with the coming of the spring, the ice melted and they were able to journey back.

Within a week of their departure, however, Barendz died.

Here is a picture of a painting you can find in the collection in the main building, showing Barendz's death surrounding by his few surviving crew members.

The story obviously captured the imagination of the Dutch.

Here is a print from one of those early accounts of the expedition, detailing the first days of their entrapment, before the sun set.

We see several battles with bears, including in the bottom left hand corner the killing and skinning of a bear as they hunted for much needed provisions to help them survive the long ordeal they faced.

One can also see the makeshift house they wintered in which stood for 300 years and became known as Barentz House.

As with The Bear Hunt, something that is missing from the image are pictures of whales and walruses which they saw many of.

In fact it was the expedition’s reports on the abundance of whales that really kick started the Dutch whaling industry.

In 1612 the Dutch sent out ships with Basque whalers in their crews to Spitsbergen.

Of course, the British were none too happy about this.

But after a few minor skirmishes at sea, an agreement was reached. It was decided that the Dutch would have control of the North-West side of Spitsbergen, the British the West.

The Dutch were both extremely efficient and had strong financial support and so, within a couple of decades, had cornered the market.

The story of early Arctic whaling follows similar trends to what is happening in the modern day fishing industry; with whalers hunting one area to the point of depletion and then moving on to another.

It began as a coastal operation. But the whales soon got wise though, shied away from the shore forcing their hunters to follow them into the open sea.

Now when the whales would be caught they were stripped of their blubber and baleen on board ship. These would be brought back to be treated in Holland.

By the middle of the 17th century a quarter of Amsterdam was given over to these rendering works, where the blubber was boiled in huge furnaces to extract the oil from it, making it one of the smelliest cities in Europe, but also one of the richest and, with its streets lit by two thousand lamps fuelled by whale fat, one of the safest too.

Of course as the whalers sailed further North conditions got harder.

Ships had to be reinforced, given an extra layer of planks under the waterline and extra beams in the bow to resist the pressure of the ice floes.

Notice the spar over the stern for added protection.

Navigation was a perilous enterprise.

Distances are deceptive in the Arctic Circle, the air is so clear it often happened that sailors thought they were closer to land than they were.

Sometimes in overcast conditions, like in the painting here, it was difficult to distinguish the sky from the sea, the ice from the cloud.

And so as one could not trust one’s eyes but had to turn to reason and calculation.

It was an exact and exacting science. One in ten would be wrecked and many more would get trapped in the ice and run the risk of suffering a similar fate to Willem Barendz.

Despite these difficulties Dutch whaling thrived, employing at its height nearly ten thousand people.

In 1696, 428 whales were caught, generating over 17,000 casks of blubber.

(Interestingly, perhaps, that is less than half the number of whales the Japanese caught last year, for so-called scientific purposes)

On one level the painting is a tribute to these brave Dutch sailors who journeyed to such extreme latitudes.

But still that doesn’t quite fit.

Here in comparison is a pen-painting by Adriaen van Salm called “Whalers in the Ice”, painted slightly earlier.

The sails are unfurled and billowing dramatically in the wind, in the right hand corner you can see the men dragging a whale onto the shore in a concerted effort. Man triumphant over nature.

A far more uplifting image of whalers at work than The Bear Hunt, in which the men seem slightly puny and ineffectual in the face of these elemental forces.

Perhaps the reason for the painting’s more subdued tone lies closer to home.

In 1696 the Dutch Republic, along with England and Spain, were at war with France.

This was the War of the Grand Alliance, or the Nine-Year War which had cost millions of lives and was soon to come to an end.

There is I think one slight clue that perhaps suggests Vitrunga had these events in mind when painting the subject.

Looking again at the print of Willem Barendz expedition from about a hundred years earlier we notice in the top left image a difference in the way in which the bears are being killed.

The whalers here are using muskets.

The most probable explanation for the use of spears is that every gun was needed to fight the war at home.

Whalers, incidentally, were immune from national service.

They were not immune from the conflict altogether, though, as the war saw the rise of privateering, state sponsored piracy.

So, on top of being stranded, wrecked, frozen, or eaten by polar bears, the whalers also ran the risk of being raided by the French.

Perhaps then this reflective and mournful quality that we see in the painting is a comment on the war-weary state that Holland and indeed most of Europe was in at the time.

However Vitringa intended the painting to be read, as a tribute to the courage of these whalers, perhaps men the artist knew personally, had grown up with in Friesland even, or as a comment on the effects of this long and protracted war, one thing is for certain.

There is something about the painting that speaks to us more directly than many other treatments of the subject. There is an honesty in the painting, an honesty which admits this ambiguous relationship man has with nature, both fearless and afraid, on the left the Dutch whaling fluute, standing tall and proud against the iceberg, on the right the men frozen in fear at the sight of their fallen companion.