A 19th Century tale of survival and tragedy, the artistic skill of James Gale Tyler’s narrative painting tells part of the story of thirty naval officers and enlisted men, along with three civilians in the midst of an Arctic adventure on an attempt to reach the North Pole. This painting, with its exceptional coloration, reflective qualities, and textured details ranks amongst Tyler’s very best work. The striking depiction still radiates the almost-ever present Arctic summer sunlight, casting hope over the adventure.
A time-line of the expedition illustrates the enormity of the challenge the men faced. Publisher James Gordon Bennett, Jr. purchased the ship, previously the H.M.S. PANDORA, and allied with the U.S. Government to fund the expedition. The JEANNETTE left San Francisco on July 8, 1879 and was held fast in ice east of Wrangell Island by September. The ship drifted northwest in the ice for the rest of 1879, all of 1880 and landed at an island they named Henrietta Island, in honor of Bennett, on May 9, 1881. This was more than 600 miles from where they first became stuck. While trapped, the men led by Lieut. Commander George W. DeLong, Assistant Surgeon James Ambler, Lieut. Charles Chipp and Chief Engineer George W. Melville battled hunger and fierce atmospheric conditions, all while conducting their scientific assignments, hunting, and maintaining their ship.
In June 1881 the ice began to part, and hope surfaced that they might steam clear, but on June 12th the flows closed in with force and crushed the JEANNETTE, sinking her in less than one day. Shown here, the men pulled their meager supplies and three boats off the ship and prepared to make a 700-mile trek toward open water on the north Siberian Coast near the Lena River Delta. After almost three months, they reached the ocean and set out in the boats. Separated soon after by a storm, Chipp’s boat was lost, DeLong’s went off course and only one boat led by Melville found safety with local inhabitants. Two of DeLong’s group, Seamen Noros and Nindemann, managed to survive by setting out to find help for them all. Melville later returned to the Siberian Arctic to search for his lost captain, and found their last camp and the written journals DeLong had kept the entire trip, along with many sketches.
Right up until the end, DeLong kept an exacting log of the voyage, and this record lives on as a book to tell the full story, edited by his wife, Emma, and published in 1883. The moment portrayed by the artist Tyler is one of hope and determination, an artistic homage to the spirit of all the men, taken directly from a drawing in DeLong’s published book, from the last day of the Ship JEANNETTE.
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