Prologue Magazine

Prologue: Selected Articles

Winter 1997, Vol. 29, No. 4

The Arctic Sketches of Russell W. Porter, Part 3
By Mary C. Ryan

As the official artist on his last two polar expeditions, Porter produced an impressive number of sketches and watercolors. Most of the illustrations reproduced here depict scenes from the Baldwin-Ziegler Expedition. The Arctic setting presented unique challenges for an artist. His watercolors froze; snowblindness from the intense summer glare was a real danger; and the low light during winter made painting impossible. Pastels were often the only medium possible when the temperature was thirty to fifty degrees below zero. Frostbite was an ever-present danger: "I have worked away with one bare hand until the danger signal . . . told me in no uncertain way that it was time to stop and force back the circulation."(7) Even with all these physical hardships, Porter declared that the hardest thing for him to bear was watching the Aurora during the dark winter months, "knowing I was absolutely helpless and unable to paint it."(8) He tried to work by candlelight, but the yellow light distorted all the colors, and he decided it was better to put off any color work rather than use artificial light.

'Summer--Red Cliff' Cliff in Darkness
"Summer--Red Cliff""Example of a water color at 60° below zero"

Although Porter could not always capture the northern colors in drawing, his notebook is full of color notes that describe the Arctic skies through the spectrum of his paintbox. He details the colors he saw, how they blended and shifted, and the quality of the light. In a word sketch of an early spring sky he instructs: "Starting with a deep orange at the horizon and blending perfectly with each other came Cadmium, chrome yellow, and then a beautiful, delicate pale green. Following this color came cobalt blue, intensifying to a veritable Prussian blue, so dark the stars could be seen twinkling against it."(9)

The alien light and climactic conditions were not the only obstacles the artist had to overcome. In an unpublished essay on "Sketching under Difficulties or The Trials of an Arctic Artist," Porter wrote of life on the trail: "After a day's travel . . . you stop and erect a thin silk tent, heat some pemmican and coffee; roll out the bag, enter it and try to sleep. Your bed is the snow itself. An hour or so of shivering is endured, the bag slowly thaws out, then drowsiness steals over you and blessed unconsciousness."(10) During one excursion, with temperature twenty degrees below zero, Porter fell into water up to his waist. He raced back to camp and stripped off his clothes. While he curled up in his sleeping bag, his companion hung up the wet clothes to freeze. When the clothes had frozen, he then pounded the ice out of them.

'Peace Point' 'Terra Nova'
"Peace Point""Terra Nova"

In July 1905 the Terra Nova arrived and brought the Fiala-Ziegler party back to Norway. The expedition had failed to find a route to the Pole, but it had recorded much valuable scientific data. This was Porter's last trip above the Arctic Circle, though he did join Cook in a 1906 attempt to scale Mount McKinley in Alaska. A year after that excursion, he wrote in his diary: "I am getting old. That old desire of the north has claimed me year after year[,] taken the best out of my life[,] and left me little and much. Ten years has been required out of my life to satiate that lust of the polar world. What I prize now of worldly things are very simple."(11)

Arctic Sketches of Russell W. Porter, Part 2
Arctic Sketches of Russell W. Porter, Part 3
Arctic Sketches of Russell W. Porter, Part 4

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.