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Bible Reading Aboard the Tegetthoff

On view

Bible Reading Aboard the Tegetthoff

Artist: Edwin Dickinson (American, 1891 - 1978)

Date: 1926
Medium: Oil on cardboard
Dimensions:
Overall: 20 x 24in. (50.8 x 61cm)
Signed: Right edge: 'Tegetthoff / E.W.Dickinson / Provincetown 1926'
Credit Line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ferdinand H. Davis
Object number: 68.36
Label Text
The Tegetthoff was an Austrio-Hungarian scientific expedition to the North Pole that departed Norway in July 1872. The ship was trapped in an ice floe and drifted for two years; fortunately no hands were lost.

Dickinson, who was fascinated by polar exploration, found in this dramatic experience of human endurance a great subject. He depicted the crew in tones of black and gray, standing in a circle listening to the central figure reading from a large book. One of them to the left strangely seems to be enveloped in a large dark sail. Dickinson’s use of somber colors, indistinct brushwork, and uncertain space creates an unsettled atmosphere that is appropriate for the theme.

Mary E. Murray
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Text Entries

Bible Reading Aboard the Tegetthoff is the fifth of seven paintings by Edwin Dickinson relating to polar subjects, and the second of two works related to the 1870s arctic voyage of the Austrian vessel Tegetthoff.(1) It is hardly surprising that a maritime subject should be painted by an artist who as a youth had hoped to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and who later served in the navy as a radio operator. Such a topic becomes even more plausible given that Dickinson spent most of the 1920s in Province- town, Massachusetts, relentlessly observing the changing drama of ocean and sky.

But this particular subject refers to the past, not to the artist’s own sailing experience. Bible Reading Aboard the Tegetthoff reflects the artist’s peculiar antiquarian interests and specifically to his own collection of over fifty books on polar topics. And though the subject of prayer reminds us that Dickinson was raised in a devout household presided over by his minister father, this depiction of faith is set in a foreign and imperiled realm, aboard a scientific exploration during which the ship became trapped in a huge ice floe that drifted for almost two years before the crew abandoned it and finally made their way back to civilization. Rendered with the faceless imprecision of a half- remembered dream, Dickinson’s image of prayer becomes a psychologically charged meditation, combining personal preoccupations with a real historical event. The artist transforms an epic voyage of scientific discovery into a beleaguered spiritual quest, in which the story of man’s search for facts is cast aside in favor of spiritual salvation. The reading of the Bible becomes a plea to God for deliverance from premature death.

The Utica painting is also a depiction of human beings gathered together for solace amid a hostile environment, but the image is hardly reassuring. The steeply angled perspective forces the viewer to peer down uneasily upon the deck. This device not only suggests the disorienting movement of a ship trapped in ice but also acts as a metaphor for instability. And in the tense, scattered placement of the figures lies a suggestion of the fragile super-session of community by isolation.

The sobriety of the scene, with its predominant grays and blacks, verges on the funereal. The sails draped over the deck to form a tent assume a shroud-like appearance, as if engulfing the figures rather than protecting them. Simultaneously, sail, mast, and the explorers themselves stretch upward, away from the constraints of earthly existence, as if to counter the fate of being swallowed by the ice. Dickinson’s lifelong habit of repeated overpainting and his disregard for plausible spatial relationships appear to have left one supplicant enveloped by the gray canvas sail. Only feet and shadow protrude, leaving the disturbing impression of a body wrapped for sea burial. Is the artist suggesting that faith forestalls death, or could it be that the climate for faith has itself become endangered? Though the mournful mood of the painting appears to unite faith with death, the finality of “death” seems somehow too absolute a word for Dickinson’s world. His lifelong quest was to visualize evanescence itself, the passing of time and the mutability of all things.

A glimmer of light offers a foil to the northern gloom of this noonday service. Is this a proverbial sign of hope indicating that the Tegetthoff’s party was ultimately rescued, or is it Dickinson’s reminder that the world is always one of shadows, where the clarity of day cannot reach to dispel the unknown?

Notes

1. My gratitude is extended to Frances F. Dickinson, the artist’s widow, for her generosity in providing information about Dickinson’s polar subjects.

Copyright
© Estate of Edwin Dickinson.