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John Macallan Swan

“We were the first that ever burst into the silent sea”


John Macallan Swan
Old Brentford, England, 1847 – Isle of Wight 1910


“We were the first that ever burst into the silent sea”




Oil on canvas mounted on hardboard


46.9 x 90.2 cm


Dr. and Mrs. Charles F. Martin Bequest, inv. 1956.1142


Western Art

“As a painter of animals Mr. J. M. Swan has few rivals, and in his ‘Polar Bears Swimming’ . . . we see him at his best.” These words, written at the turn of the twentieth century, convey art critic E. G. Halton’s admiration for this painting, which earned the artist the top prize for modern British pictures at the 1900 Exposition universelle in Paris. The scene belongs to the well-established nineteenth-century genre that depicts the Arctic and its wildlife – a subject that became more topical and emotionally charged in England and North America in the 1850s, following the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s ship during his expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. The Arctic came to be regarded as a place of both wonder and ever-present danger, offering artists the quintessential means of evoking the sublime.

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