hidden europe 53

Brush Strokes: Albert Operti and Polar Art

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: This cigarette card was painted by Albert Operti. The image comes from the George Arents Collection which is part of the Digital Collections of the New York Public Library. The copyright status of the image is unclear and it is reproduced here in good faith.


A small bay on the west side of an island in Franz Josef Land is named in honour of an Italian-born artist. We look at the life and work of Albert Operti.

It is the prerogative of explorers to name places. The large Franz Josef Land archipelago in the European High Arctic was discovered by chance by von Payer and Weyprecht on an Austro- Hungarian expedition in 1873. The explorers were bound for the North Pole, a goal that they never reached. Their schooner Tegetthoff became trapped in polar ice and the crew drifted helplessly.

The first island they discovered in the territory we now know as Franz Josef Land was named in honour of the principal sponsor of their expedition, the Austrian Count Hans Wilczek, who was himself an accomplished traveller. In 1872, Wilczek had visited Svalbard and later that same year travelled overland through some of the remotest terrain in north-west Russia. So a small island, just south of the 80th parallel, was called Wilczek Island.

With their ship stuck in ice for months, the Tegetthoff mariners had ample opportunity to make excursions ashore to explore the islands to which chance and drifting ice had escorted them. It slowly became clear that their decision to honour Wilczek had been premature. There were many much larger islands in what was evidently a vast archipelago, and their expedition sponsor clearly deserved more conspicuous cartographic recognition. Julius von Payer and others on the Tegetthoff meticulously mapped the southern and western shores of one large island and it was resolved that island, at well over 80ºN, should also be named for Wilczek. Modern charts still show both Wilczek Island and Wilczek Land.

The Tegetthoff expedition named a number of prominent features on Wilczek Land. A trio of capes recall in their names distinguished Austrian scientists, among them Cape Heller in honour of zoologist Camill Heller. It was left to later expeditions to fill in the toponymic details of Wilczek Land. Two American-sponsored adventures (the 1898–1999 Wellman and the 1901–1902 Baldwin expeditions) spent time on Wilczek Land. Wellman named Cape Lamont and Cape Elkins, while Baldwin carefully mapped Cape Heller in detail and named the two bays on either side of that cape. That to the north he called Kersting Bay (after Rudolf Kersting, a photographer who had survived the disastrous Miranda expedition to Greenland in 1894). Baldwin then turned to the bay south of Cape Heller which he named Operti Bay. It’s a rare case of an Arctic toponym being inspired by an artist.

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