Sketch of the Week

This week's sketch is brought to you by Shelburne Museum.

Actually, this time I'm serious, because what I sketched comes from the Museum's permanent collection:

This is Seal and Polar Bear, a painting done by Charles Sidney Raleigh in 1881. A self-taught artist, Raleigh was a merchant seaman who later became a painter. He specialized in painting meticulous portraits of whaling ships, but he also did sign painting, house decoration, and occasional polar bear scenes such as this one.

I've always loved this painting because it's delightfully weird. It's cartoonish, but has a great composition and is full of action.

I featured Seal and Polar Bear in one of the exhibits I curated at the Museum last season, How Extraordinary!, and quickly sketched it right before the show closed. You can read about my adventures with this painting in the Shelburne Museum blog.

I definitely want to do some prints around the painting, but haven't quite figured out how to do so yet.

What do you think of Seal and Polar Bear? Do you love this painting as much as I do?


  1. Just browsing and came upon this strange painting "Seal and Polar Bear. Here's my subjective take, the composition is disturbing because of it's lineage of predatorship, seal ate something to be where he is, bear eats seal, and mankind moving in. I would love to see it for real to understand the way of the work but it does seem cartoonish which is a plus in this case. It gives me the sense of being in that environment and being that cold. There is a universal truth about life on this planet, in this image and that is, time to get back inside, it's freakin cold out here. Thanks.

  2. Dear Victor,

    Thank you for posting such a thoughtful comment to an equally provoking painting. You deserve an equally thoughtful response.

    First, you're right, seeing the painting in person is an entirely different experience. It measures about 3' x 4' or so, so it's a fairly good-sized picture. Despite its cartoonish appearance, Raleigh paid a lot of attention to detail such as fur, so it has a much richer textural appearance than this thumbnail suggests. It also was cleaned by a paintings conservator before it went on view, so the color relationships are much more subtle in real life.

    More importantly, I really appreciate your observation about the juxtaposition between violence and cartoonishness. You're absolutely right: this is a violent painting. No matter how you approach it, what you're seeing is a seal mauled by a bear. Yet as you astutely point out, the seal is also obviously a predator, so the violence we're seeing is not a unique event, but an endless cycle. (As an interesting aside, Raleigh did at least two other versions of this painting. One of them is at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and is called "The Laws of Nature").

    At the same time, however, the cartoonishness of the painting, for me at least, distances the violence somewhat. Yes, I can see perfectly well that the seal is coming to a bad end, but the exaggerated, simplified forms make the scene feel less "real" to me somehow, while nonetheless evoking the ruthlessness of the Arctic realm. I think this is one reason why this painting was always popular with children while the exhibition was up. Its cartoonish appearance provided a safe realm in which to indulge their inner gods of war. It's not our world, after all, but a make-believe world of paint. And yet it is real.

    The conservators at the museum always thought that this painting had a surprisingly modern feel to it, what with the geometric forms of the animals.

    Frankly, I don't know whether Raleigh had any of this in mind when he was painting. Part of the reason for the aesthetic is the fact that Raleigh never saw this particular subject first-hand. He always traveled in the southern hemisphere when he was a seaman, so he had never been to the Arctic. Instead, he listened to the stories of whalers in order to paint scenes like this. Interestingly enough, most of his polar bear scenes aren't this violent. If anything, they're kind of funny or comical.

    Yet despite the cartoonishness, or perhaps because of it, he really does capture the alien feel of the polar world. It's different, strange, and ultimately ruthless. In short, there's a lot more to this painting than first meets to eye, and the more time you spend with it, the more complicated it becomes.

    As for what I'd do with it, I'm still debating. Those who know me figure I'll do something comical or whimsical with it, but I'm more interested in the ideas you brought up, the universality of violence in nature, and our violent impact on the world. Whether we like it or not, this environment so artfully captured here is transforming from our actions, and it's entirely possible that these animals won't be around in a few decades. We'll see what I end up doing.

    In any case, thanks for taking the time to comment, and I hope you have a fabulous day.

  3. Did I call that second painting Laws of Nature? I'm always getting the title mixed up, my apologies. It's actually called "The Law of the Wild." I don't know whether Raleigh came up with that title himself, but it'd be interesting to find out.


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