Classic Whaling Prints

Exhibition Date: 2009

Over the centuries, the hazards and pleasures of seafaring, the high drama of the mythic whale hunt, and the beauty of the many exotic whaling ports around the world  attracted highly accomplished artists and printmakers to whaling subjects.

As the repository of the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of whaling prints, the New Bedford Whaling Museum staged a Classic Whaling Prints exhibition showcasing the benchmark masterpieces and most influential images of the past 400 years.

Sperm Whaling N°2 – The Conflict,
Lithograph by Joseph Foxcroft Cole, #2001.100.7551

Opened on February 27, 2009 and running through the year, the exhibition traced highlights of the genre from Dutch and German foundations in the 17th century; to French, British and American masterworks of the 19th century; to examples from Japan and the American 20th century.

Drawn entirely from the Museum's permanent collection, the exhibition included approximately 80 prints, primarily European and American etchings, engravings, aquatints, and lithographs spanning the period 1582-1930. These were supplemented and placed into a broader, international context by a sample of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, influential American book illustrations, Native Alaskan ceramics and works on paper, and other artworks from the permanent collection, including some of the original oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings on which the prints were originally based, banknotes, ceramics, scrimshaw, and a variety of other decorative objects that were inspired by the prints.

Organized and written by Dr. Stuart M. Frank, Senior Curator at the Whaling Museum, the Classic Whaling Prints show was divided into five sections that provided historical context and geographic focus. Among the prints from "The Dutch Golden Age" was a somber engraving from the 1630s by Magdalena van de Pas, one of the few women who produced nautical artworks in the Baroque era. Notable among the several important prints and paintings in "The British Go Whaling" section were the works of William John Huggins, one of the most accomplished marine painters of the 19th century.


The title of "The French Are the Lads" comes from Moby-Dick, and this section featured Herman Melville's four favorite whaling prints, all by French artists. Two of these were extremely rare and seldom seen; one of them existed only in the one specimen at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. With the advent of sperm whaling around 1712, the ships got larger, the voyages got longer, and the whaling grounds expanded to encompass the entire Atlantic and eventually the Pacific, Indian, and Arctic Oceans. By the 19th century – "The American Century" – whaling and its network of shoreside industries had become key factors in the national and regional economies. Finally, "Along the Pacific Rim" sampled prints by Japanese and Inupiaq Eskimo artists whose work exemplifies indigenous nonwestern traditions of printmaking.

Describing the cultural significance of the artworks and their appeal to art connoisseurs as well as to whaling history enthusiasts, Dr. Frank said, "For four hundred years these prints were in the vanguard, they influenced decorative arts and souvenirs worldwide, especially in Holland and New England, and they remain the most striking and memorable images of the whaling industry and its resonant impact upon mainstream culture." This, Mr. Russell added, "Provides another chapter in the nation's chronicle of the whaling industry and culture, and demonstrates yet again the Whaling Museum's leading role in preserving and advancing the whaling narrative."


Last modified: December 8, 2011