Biard's fascination for grand landscapes goes back to the journeys he went on in Switzerland and Scotland in the 1830s, and to his first painting with the Arctic as theme : Embarcation attaquée par des ours blancs, in 1839, before his trip to the High North. The painting is admired by Louis-Philippe at the 1839 Salon, who suggests the artist go with the scientific mission soon leaving for Spitzberg. Biard accepts happily as he has an appetite for risk and for long journeys, and decides to leave with his future wife, Léonie d'Aunet. After 14 days at sea on the corvette La Recherche, the mission finally arrives in Magdalena Bay. The mission settles there for 13 days, after which Biard and Léonie decide to pursue the voyage and discover Lapland. Biard is amazed by the variety and the splendour of the landscapes and skies, and impressed by the aurora borealis and the meteorological changes.
Upon his return in Paris, Biard paints a series of 18 studies showing Magdalena Bay and its aurora borealis. His vivid memories along with these studies will soon inspire him a dozen of paintings which he'll present at the Salon between 1841 and 1880. The first paintings, more romantic, accentuate human frailty before the immense ice desert. The most famous being Magdalena Bay, vue prise de la presqu'île des Tombeaux au nord du Spitzberg, presented in 1841 and now kept at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, represents a shipwreck lost in a large landscape surrounded by snow and mountains, under an exquisite aurora borealis.
Biard's passion for Arctic peaks with the décor he paints for the Galerie de minéralogie in the Museum of Natural History, Paris : a 360° panorama showing Magdalena Bay, open to the public in 1864.
Our painting, executed in 1876-77, shows the artist's lasting passion for Arctic, but also the public's lasting interest for these romantic and exceptional scenes, untouched by mankind. The left part of the composition shows a beautiful aurora borealis. The phenomenon captures the spectator's entire attention at first, before they discover the shipwreck on the right of the composition, where the men try to keep the fire burning, and gesticulate to be noticed by the boat in the background. Biard is certainly representing an event that took place in 1843, as indicated in the title at the Salon.
Biard is probably the French artist the most attached to render its beauty to the place. Other European and American painters have chosen to paint the High North as well : Friedrich for example. Their compositions are more symbolic, showing an immense solitary nature and inviting one to meditate on mankind's insignificance, and eternity.
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