Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt

By Michael P. Dyer, Maritime Curator

Sperm whaling scene by Oliver Wilcox, seaman onboard of the ship,
Canton. (*see below for more information about this artwork)

 

Buried deep within the logbooks, journals and manuscripts of America’s 19th century whaling heritage are watercolor paintings and other drawings and representations of the hunt rarely if ever seen by the public. With the combined collections of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and the Kendall Whaling Museum, an unparalleled opportunity exists to bring these hidden artworks into the public eye. I propose to write a book that brings this art form to life in the context in which it was created; in a maritime culture, on shipboard, at sea, during the daily hunting of whales. Scrimshaw is another important element of whaling art and will be included but because this book focuses exclusively on the art of the hunt, the choices of scrimshaw will be limited only to those pieces most relevant as documentary, inspired or directly focused on the hunt itself. This book will highlight artworks that capture the essence of whaling, its culture, the vessels used in it, the geographical locales of where it took place and the animals commonly pursued. Comparing scrimshaw whaling scenes with whalemen’ s paintings and drawings has never been done before although the comparisons are obvious.

More than just a picture book, this work is based on the premise that whalemen recorded important events pictorially, not at random and not necessarily generically. These events included encounters with large whales, the deaths of friends and shipmates and other dramatic or memorable moments. At the same time, the illustrations are documents of a maritime culture rarely if ever examined as such and there is a potential social historical element to these works.

As it is loosely arranged chronologically, the evolution of a more formal style of American whaling art will also be examined beginning with navigation exercise books from the early 1800s and ending with the photography and large-scale oil paintings of Clifford W. Ashley in the early 20th century.

This approach to whaling art has never before been attempted in print. In fact, this whole subject has only ever been addressed once and that was in 1983 in the book by Kenneth R. Martin, Whalemen’s Paintings and Drawings. The Art of the American Whaleman is intended to be a pleasure for the general reader and a useful tool for the scholar, collector, nautical enthusiast and art historian. I am proposing primarily a maritime art book building on my accumulating body of work and original research.

 

*Oliver Wilcox, seaman onboard of the ship Canton of New Bedford under the command of Abraham Gardner while on a voyage to the Pacific Ocean drew this sperm whaling scene in the journal of one of his shipmates onboard. It shows the action of May 3, 1837 on the Japan Grounds, North Pacific, where three whales were taken, one boat completely destroyed, another slightly damaged and three whales lost as the harpoons pulled free or broke, or the whale line parted. In addition to the detailed whaling scene, Wilcox carefully drew the woman figurehead at the bow of the ship and in another equally panoramic scene drew the details of the stern of the vessel. (KWM #252, anonymous journal kept onboard the same voyage).

Last Modified: April 10, 2014