Monday, April 16, 2012

The Saga of Seal and Polar Bear, Part I
One of the things I enjoy most about being a curatorial fellow here at Shelburne Museum is the time I spend exploring the collections. I get to rummage through shelves and bins in search of delightful objects, and I’m always amazed by the things I stumble across.
Take, for instance, my adventure with Seal and Polar Bear.
Last summer I delved into our painting and print storage areas looking for pieces to feature in my exhibition How Extraordinary! Travel, Novelty, and Time in the Permanent Collection. The show opens on June 16th, and it explores the concept of novelty in 18th and 19th-century European and American art. Here are just a few pieces that will be featured:
Currier and Ives, Old Neptune, 1860
Vue d’optique of the interior of the church of St. Genevieve, Paris, 18th century
Albertus del Orient Browere, Rip Van Winkle in the Mountains, ca. 1880
While the objects above might suggest that I just choose pieces at random, I actually follow several criteria when I’m putting together my shows. I see an exhibition as a narrative, and any piece I use has to help tell the story I want to convey. I also pay attention to an object’s condition.
What I really like doing, though, is finding the Museum’s hidden gems, those great-looking, but lesser known pieces that haven’t been shown in a really long time, if ever. Also, the weirder the work is, the better.
Imagine my delight then, when I stumbled across this….

Let me introduce you to one of my favorite paintings in the entire collection. This is Seal and Polar Bear, painted by Charles Sidney Raleigh around 1881.
I was immediately taken with the work, beginning with its abstract character. I really liked how Raleigh had simplified his forms, allowing me to focus on the action. His use of color also intrigued me, particularly in the ice and sky, where you’ll find traces of pink, green, and blue.

Fine, you might be thinking, but let’s get to the point: this painting is basically a cartoonish rendition of a polar bear killing a seal. It’s full of teeth, claws, and blood. It’s violent, exaggerated, and downright weird.
It’s my kind of painting, in other words.
I had found a really striking piece for my show, but now my real work began. I knew virtually nothing about the work or the artist, so I needed to do some research. I also needed to talk with our conservators to determine the painting’s condition and decide whether it needed any treatment. Then there was the matter of choosing its actual placement within the exhibition. My work was definitely cut out for me, but I was ready for the adventure.
Stay tuned for Part II, when I begin to share the results of my research.


  1. Sara, I love this painting! Do you know the work of contemporary painter Walton Ford? It has a very similar feel. You might enjoy seeing some.

  2. I'm delighted to find a fellow fan of Seal and Polar Bear! I do know Ford's work, and I like his macabre re-interpretation of Audubon's sinuous aesthetic.

  3. Before we moved to VT last year I worked at the Phila Museum of Art, which has Raleigh's great 'Chilly Observation' -|1. It was often hidden by the kids who were always crowded around it, but I always enjoyed catching a glimpse on my way down the north corridor. I'll look forward to seeing Seal and Polar Bear in June!