Towards the end of the fall semester, second-year Masters student Hannah Fitch received a Carol Bird Ravenal Travel Award to fund a research trip to Norway. Here, she shares the highlights of her experience:
“This past November I traveled to Oslo to research my thesis on the life and work of American artist Frank Wilbert Stokes. My thesis centers on Stokes’s participation in two expeditions to Northern Greenland with explorer Robert Peary in 1892 and 1893-94. The works Stokes made during those voyages made him one of the most prolific artists of the Arctic; in addition to his numerous plein-air landscapes, produced in extreme weather conditions, Stokes created portraits of native Inuit he encountered.
Last summer, I had researched his voyage to Greenland with the Peary Expeditions, a project sponsored by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. While working in the Smithsonian’s archives, I discovered that a woman currently living in Oslo grew up next door to Stokes in New York City, and had studied his work extensively. While in Oslo, I met with Stokes’s neighbor, who showed me several works by the artist in her private collection. She also allowed me access to Stokes’s original and unpublished journals, which contained copious records about his experiences in Greenland. In conversation, she relayed several personal stories about living next to Stokes and about his studio, which was later inhabited by Edward Hopper.
My initial belief that Stokes approached his subjects in a culturally sensitive manner were both challenged and enhanced by my findings in Norway. Although his drawings of Inuit convey a strong sense of individuality, they also deny a level of cultural context through the elimination of ethnic attributes. However, in comparison to scientific images, which framed the Inuit as ethnographic specimens, Stokes was governed by pictorial and professional concerns, which is evidenced by his works as well as his unpublished diaries. Although his portraits mitigate a stereotypical perception, they are also complicated by Stokes’s own uncertainty regarding prevalent social themes in America, such as racial relations in response to increasing immigration. Therefore, in navigating the genre of expedition art, Stokes presented his American viewers with a cooperative tension between aesthetic realism and ethnographic empiricism that serves as a reflection of both his historical moment at the turn-of-the-century and his personal experiences in Greenland, living and working with both scientists and natives.
Thanks to the generous grants provided by the AU Art History Department, Dr. Carol Bird Ravenal, and the AU College of Arts and Sciences, I was able to deepen my thesis research through exposure to otherwise inaccessible archival documents. My findings in Oslo allowed me to gain a greater understanding of Stokes, his artwork, and his impressions of the Arctic, which significantly improved the quality of my thesis.”