Very few full-time painters have built their reputation on their depictions of the exploration of remote and hostile lands. One of the earliest to do so was François-Auguste Biard (1799–1882), who shot to fame in 1839, the year that he set off for Spitsbergen in the Arctic. The curious fact about him is that his most successful ‘expedition’ painting was made in his Paris studio when he had travelled no further north than the English Channel.
Biard was born in Lyon, France, and trained at the Academy of Fine Arts there, before he made his way to Paris in 1824. He quickly got itchy feet and a compulsion to travel, and in 1827-28 taught drawing on board a training ship, which visited Greece and the Middle East. He made quite a reputation for himself at this stage, and when he settled back in Paris in the mid 1830s was appointed portrait painter to the court.
His lust for travel wasn’t so easily satisfied, and in 1839 he left France as the unofficial artist to Le Recherche French Admiralty expedition which went into the far north, to the remote island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago.
The rest of the expedition had left Le Havre, France, in the summer of 1838 on a French corvette, and headed for the north of Scandinavia. Led by Joseph Paul Gaimard, a zoologist, it was primarily scientific in aim, and took with it a Sami minister and botanist Lars Levi Læstadius, and some notable scholars. The expedition also visited the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and the coast of Greenland, before returning to France in 1840.
Biard financed his own travel to join the expedition in northern Norway. He was accompanied by an eighteen-year-old woman, Léonie d’Aunet, whom he later married, and who became the mistress of Victor Hugo. The couple travelled through northern Europe and Scandinavia to join the expedition at Hammerfest, from where they sailed for Spitsbergen in July 1839, almost a year after the ship had left Le Havre.
They sailed for two weeks to reach Magdalena Bay, where they anchored for thirteen days to carry out the scientific programme. The ship then returned to northern Scandinavia, where Biard and d’Aunet left to explore Lapland before returning to France.
The only painting from this expedition which I’ve been able to locate is this view From Magdalena Bay, Spitsbergen, which he made in 1839. This appears to have been made in oils in front of the motif, despite its considerable detail. But this isn’t the work which made Biard so famous, nor, as far as I can tell, was it ever submitted to the Salon in Paris.
This full-length portrait of A Laplander was sketched on paper using oils, and may have been made after he left the expedition to travel in the north of the Nordic countries during the autumn.
Biard’s most famous painting is this gripping Romantic depiction of a Fight with Polar Bears, completed prior to his departure on the expedition, and exhibited at the Salon in 1839. It’s sometimes assumed that this shows a real or dramatised episode from the expedition, but it was painted before he had even left France.
Two men and a boy are in a small boat, which is being attacked by three adult polar bears. They’re trying to repel them using a spear-like harpoon, a hand knife, and an axe, as the bears are threatening to overwhelm their small boat and wound them.
At that time, Biard’s only experience of polar bears could have been seeing them in a zoo. He made other paintings showing scenes from the expedition over the following years, in the comfort of his Paris studio.
Pastor Læstadius Instructing the Lapps (1840) shows the expedition’s botanist and priest preaching among the Sami people in Lapland. Læstadius was a self-identified Southern Sami, through his mother, and a revivalist Lutheran. One of his main missions was to tackle the severe problems brought by alcohol, and convince the Sami people to become teetotal. He spoke two Sami languages, and during his ministry collected Sami myths which were sadly left unpublished until 1997.
Magdalena Bay; View from the Tombeaux Peninsula, to the North of Spitsbergen, Effect of the Aurora Borealis was probably completed in 1841, and was exhibited in the Salon of that year, and again at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. Lit by the eery light of the aurora is a small group of survivors, who are not mentioned in the title. Five rest on the snow in the foreground, all but one apparently already dead, and there is wreckage down among the ice behind them. One person’s footsteps lead up to the viewpoint of the artist.
View of the Arctic Ocean, Walrus Fishing by Greenlanders was also completed in 1841 and exhibited at the Salon of that year, and again at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. In a wild landscape of bizarre ice forms, a group of Inuit hunters in their kayaks are confronting huge walrus.
Biard also painted the coast of Novaya Zemlya, a huge and almost unpopulated archipelago off the north coast of Siberia, well to the east of the Svalbard archipelago which includes Spitsbergen. I suspect that this painting of Nova Zembla Coast (1841) was made from a published account of a group of Dutch sailors, as a very similar composition was painted a couple of years earlier by Biard’s contemporary Eugène Lepoittevin (1806-1870), under the title Overwintering of a Team of Dutch Sailors on the Eastern Coast of Novaya Zemlya (1839), shown below. Although Lepoittevin was also well-travelled, there’s no evidence that he got any further north than Germany.
Biard’s success in capturing the public imagination was rewarded by several commissions for related paintings. Among them is a series of large canvases for King Louis Philippe’s palace at Versailles, showing the Duke of Orleans during his visit to Lapland in the summer of 1795, nearly fifty years earlier and before Biard had even been born.
The Duke of Orleans Riding Down the Great Rapid of Eijanpaikka at the Muonio River, Lapland, August 1795 (1840) shows the Duke enjoying a little white water canoeing, and was exhibited at the Salon in 1841. Biard’s depiction of the water is particularly interesting here, as this long predates photography, which much later was able to use short exposures to effectively freeze motion.
The Duke of Orleans Received in a Lapland Camp, August 1795 (1841) shows the Duke looking rather disdainful and isolated in a Sami tent, apparently shunning the bowl that is being offered to him.
Biard’s more sketchy view In a Mountain Hut may have been made in front of the motif, onto paper. This has a strong vein of social realism, showing the abject poverty and spartan conditions of many who lived in the more remote areas of France.
During the 1850s, interest in Biard’s paintings started to wane, and his itchy feet returned. Although now into his fifties, he set off on his own personal expedition to Brazil, where he showed particular interest in the great rivers of the Amazon, Negro, and Madeira.
I don’t know whether his Seasickness on an English Corvette (1857) was painted during his initial travel to South America, but it is a magnificent caricature of life, in the manner of Hogarth at his very best.
Sadly, few paintings from Biard’s expedition to South America are accessible in usable images, apart from his dark and jewelled view of Amazonian Indians Worshipping the Sun God from about 1860.
Biard took the opportunity of painting portraits of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro. He then travelled to tour the US, returning to Paris in 1861. The following year he published a book about his travels in Brazil, illustrated by engravings made from his work. He didn’t die by the mauling of a polar bear, nor from a poison dart in the Amazon jungle, but in Samois-sur-Seine, near Paris, a few days short of his 83rd birthday.
Biard must have been a fascinating character, and certainly made some thrilling and swashbuckling paintings. However, as an explorer his experience was a lot more limited than his reputation, and most of his most successful paintings showed scenes from his imagination, rather than his own adventures. They’re still rather fun, though.