3 June, 2012

Wilbert Frank Stokes, the first antarctic artist

Louis Philippe Land

Frank Wilbert Stokes (Born in Nashville, Tennessee 1858, Died in New York, New York 1955) was an American sketch artist and painter who specialized in illustrations of Arctic and Antarctic themes.

A large collection of his works is now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum held by Arthur Curtis James and Robert Curtis Ogden Memorial Collection, though they are not currently on view.

He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the Académie Colarossi and the Académie Julian.  Besides classical training in style and technique he also was influenced by impressionist style.

Stoke participated in expeditions to northern Greenland under Robert Peary during 1886 and 1892 – 1894. He joined Otto Nordenskjöld’s Antarctic expedition between 1901 (when they met at Buenos Aires) and 1903. In 1909 and 1910 Stokes completed mural decorations at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. During 1925 – 1926 he joined the Amundsen-Ellsworth expeditions.

On his first trip to Antarctica he wrought an article about the expedition that was published in the August 1903 issue of The Century Magazine. Stokes left to the White Continent on December 21 1901 aboard the Antarctic in Otto Nordenskjöld’s expedition.

The most popular paintings he did during the trip were: “An Antarctic Afterglow, Sidney Herbert Bay, February 10, 1902, About 9 P.M.”, “The Sun’s Rays, Sidney Herbert Bay and Joinville Land, February 10, 1902, 7 P.M.”, “An Antarctic Sunset, Admiralty Inlet, Joinville Land, February 13, 1902, About 7 P.M .” and “The Approach of a Storm, Joinville Land, Evening of February 23, 1902, About 9 P.M.”

Days Spring Admirality Inlet, Antarctic, February 1902 Frank Wilbert Stokes Smithsonian American Art Museum

The article that Sokes wrought included many images of Antarctica as well as information of the continent. As an artist he was able to describe colors that one wouldn’t think about this continent. White, is the prime color associated to Antarctica, but he found blues, purples, greens, reds, pinks, browns, yellows and grays in a wide range.

On January 11, 1902, they arrived to King George Island of the South Shetlands:

“This snow mantle was of delicate white-yellow chrome, with faint cobalt-blue cloud-silhouettes creeping over its rounded surface. A few bare rocks added a deep touch of reddish-brown purple. The Icebergs were glistening in marvelous pink purity under the sun’s rays, with rich, deep shadows of turquoise-cobalt blue”.

Stokes tells that a breathless silence pervaded the scene. He was busy with camera, pencil, and brush, fearful that these grandiose themes would escape, but he succeeded in finishing five sketches.


Perhaps willing to introduce the reader of the beginning of the twentieth century in this mysterious and far away land, the artist also tells a bit of the history and looks of this place. In January 15 they were at the treacherous waters of the Erebus and Terror Gulf of Ross. He considered it was well named. At 3 PM they were a mile of Paulet Island. He explains that this island was discovered by Sir James Clark Ross on December 30, 1842: “It is volcanic, with an extinct crater, and must have changed measurably since Ross saw it, for the rocks are only 200 feet in height, while he says that they seem 750 feet, and from the distance to ‘rise so abruptly as to render it quite inaccessible’”.

Emperor Penguin, Admiralty Inlet Snow Hill, Antarctic... Frank Wilbert Stokes Smithsonian American Art Museum

As they reached the Antarctic Circle on January 18th at 11 AM, they had an encounter with an emblematic Antarctic bird. He thought that the emperor penguin was well named, for there is a certain melancholy majesty about it. It measured three and a half feet in height and weighed seventy-six pounds.

“A cry from one of the sailors drew our attention to a strange upright object standing motionless upon the sea ice. It resembled an uncouth, uncanny human being. The dark creature moved its head, but without uttering a sound. This strange being turned its small dark head upon a close, short neck attached to a heavy but graceful black-and-white feathered body, as if in doubt and somewhat uneasy at the approach of the ship. All was silence save the smothered beat of the propeller, the soft lapping of the waves against the ice, and the swish and creak of the floes as they jammed against one another. The propeller ceased its revolutions, a boat was swung over the side, and the crack of a rifle broke the stillness. We were soon rowing over the blackish-gray purple waters of the floe, where the wounded creature reclined on cream-white snow. It uttered no cry of alarm or pain, but mutely suffered, eying us with a strange indifference.

When we were within several feet of it, the creature seemed to recognize that we were enemies, and made a few weak movements to escape; but the sailors strangled it easily, and were soon dragging the body of an emperor penguin through the snow”.

When returning, at the Falkland Islands he boarded a steamer from Valparaiso, and proceeded to Montevideo and thence to the United States. Stokes returned to the United States with 150 Antarctic sketches thereby avoided the later drama of the expedition which had to be rescued by the Argentinians after the Antarctic was crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea on the return journey.


Es periodista, tiene 22 años y desde 2009 se desempeña en distintas áreas del periodismo. Es Editora de la sección de Arte de Antártida Urbana.


2 thoughts on “Wilbert Frank Stokes, the first antarctic artist

  1. Pingback: Antártida Urbana: Programa 296 | Antartida Urbana

  2. Muy interesante y completo el sitio, será promocionado en la página de la Biblioteca, de la cual formo parte de la Comisión Directiva, será útil para conocer detalles importantes de la actividad antártica. Felicitaciones-Fernando Humarán.

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