The Death of Willem Barents, 20 June 1597

An evocation of the death of the Dutch navigator and explorer, Willem Barents, made over 200 years after the event. Sailing from Amsterdam, Barents made three voyages in 1594, 1595, and 1596-97 in search of the North-East Passage to Asia. On the first two expeditions he reached Novaya Zemlya, a group of islands in northern Russia. On the third voyage he discovered an island called Bereinland and Spitsbergen, and rounded the north point of Novaya Zemlya where he became marooned, when his ship was crushed in the ice and he and his crew were forced to winter there. They were the first Europeans to winter so far north and their wintering place became known as 'Huys, or 'The Barents House', which remained undisturbed for nearly 300 years. After the arctic winter the crew started for the mainland in two small boats but Barents died on the way and there were only twelve survivors from the expedition. The extent of Barents's explorations and the accuracy of his charts made him one of the most important of all arctic explorers.

The artist has created a stylized construct of the death scene. The crew, in 17th-century dress, are gathered around the central figure in various gestures of grief and disbelief, transforming the image into a modernistic pieta, or lamentation. The setting is intentionally hostile, located on an ice floe, with a crag of ice immediately behind and jagged peaks of icebergs in the distance. Exploration is indicated by the stained, ragged sail of the boat in the background on the right, its makeshift mast flying the 17th-century flag of Amsterdam. The salvaged timber in the foreground on the left, with tools including some form of rule and a side-axe, tells of their plight and the blankets and furs indicate the intense cold the explorers suffered. Barents, the central figure, wears fewer clothes than the rest and his dress in marked contrast to the dying man on the right, dressed in furs. The left hand of Barents rests on a map showing a compass rose and with the words 'Novaya Zemlya' clearly visible, indicating the destination of their voyage. The still-life group in the foreground on the right contains hidden references to the transience of life and the inevitability of death. The empty hour-glass and the overturned lamp with the extinguished wick allude to the death of Barents and the void his death brought to the remaining sailors. The discarded pike indicates that arms are no protection against death. The glass carafe indicates Christian references, while the closed and ornately decorated book may indicate a bible.

The death of the Dutch explorer Barents was a suitable subject for the Dutch artist, who specialised in portraits and genre scenes. He has signed and dated the work 'C J L Portman' 1836' on the curved piece of a boat frame under the axe in the left foreground.

Object Details

ID: BHC0359
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Portman, Christiaan Julius Lodewyck
Date made: 1836
People: Barentsz, Willem
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Painting: 990 x 1333 mm; Frame: 1324 x 1656x 155 mm; Weight: 49.8kg

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