Iceberg sketches from 19th-century expedition to Newfoundland to be shown in New York

In Newfoundland and Labrador, it's easy to take icebergs for granted. They make their way along the coastlines of our province every spring, year after year. For many people around the world, however, icebergs are a rare sight in fact, this is one of a handful of places in the world where they can easily be seen from land.

In the mid-1800s, seeing an iceberg was an even more unlikely event for anyone who did not happen to live along a coastline where they happened to pass by. American landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church was determined to see and paint them himself, and journeyed to Newfoundland to do so.

A selection of the resulting sketches and studies made by Church 160 years ago this year has grounded itself on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where they are on display at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.

"They're incredibly powerful drawings and they really transcend their moment in time," said Caitlin Condell, the curator of the exhibit, which opens Saturday.

Arctic fascination

Church's trip to Newfoundland began with his overall fascination with the Canadian Arctic, Condell said.

There was a wider cultural fascination with the region at the time, which began with the loss of the Franklin expedition in 1845 and continued during the search for the expedition in the following years, furthering both public discussion of the region and the mystique and mystery it held for many people, she said.

Dallas Museum of Art

During the same time period, Church began studying the work of Alexander von Humboldt, whose travelogues of his various expeditions inspired the painter to find trips he could take to see these magnificent experiences in nature, and then paint them for the public to view.

That led to Church's visit to Newfoundland. He left New York, where he lived, for Halifax in June 1859, then travelled from there to Newfoundland. Once he reached the island he chartered a schooner called the Integrity that would bring him closer to the ice floes. 

"The idea of these fascinating landscapes that were completely different than anything that Church or the general public here in New York had ever seen was really special for Church, and that was the inspiration to go," Condell said.

He travelled with a companion: writer and pastor Lewis Nobel. "This was very deliberate on the part of Church, who was thinking strategically about how to develop a sort of publicity campaign for his large-scale painting that he would ultimately make two years later," Condell said.

That painting was based on nearly 100 sketches and studies Church made of various icebergs, sometimes while sitting right in front of them on the boat which allowed him to watch as the surrounding light and water changed the icebergs in front of him, sometimes within mere minutes.

David Alexander Arnold

He made notes in pencil beside his sketches, Condell said, to remind him of details and make note of the emotional experience he was having.

"He used words like 'exquisite' quite a bit," she said. 

"He was really awestruck by the bodies of ice that he was seeing."

'It was an event'

Upon his return to New York, Church set about turning that experience, and all those sketches, into a single large-scale oil painting called The Iceberg, alternately titled The North.

The painting, which measures more than five feet high by more than nine feet long, wasn't based on any single sketch or iceberg but was an amalgam of sorts of what he saw, Condell said.

"It was an event just to see a painting like this."

Frederic Edwin Church/Collection of Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Museum

Nobel's book about the voyage was released in 1861, just a few weeks before the first showing of the painting, which is now held by the Dallas Museum of Art.

When the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum was founded at the end of the 19th century, there was a focus by its three founders on collecting works that documented the design process and illustrated for students what it meant to draw from life and nature. 

The nearly 50 sketches held by the museum document that process, and Condell said she was glad to have seen them before seeing icebergs in person for the first time herself in Iceland.

"I have to say that having seen Church's sketches prepared me for the experience of what it would be like to see the remarkable delicacy and changeability of these bodies," she said.

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