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.

In a realm where capes, bays and mountains were normally named in honour of wealthy patrons, explorers, royalty, presidents and accomplished scientists, Operti Bay stands out as a remarkable exception.

Operti Bay is not the only Franz Josef Land place referencing an Italian connection. Luigi Island was named for Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, who arrived in Franz Josef Land with the Stella Polare expedition in 1899. But in a realm where capes, bays and mountains were normally named in honour of wealthy patrons, explorers, royalty, presidents and accomplished scientists, Operti Bay clearly stands out as a remarkable exception.

The artist of paintings big and small

So who was Albert Operti? He was born in 1852 into a musical family in Turin; his father was a composer and conductor. Giuseppe Operti held a number of distinguished appointments in Italy, and later in Ireland, Britain and the United States. So young Albert’s education spread across multiple countries. His artistic apprenticeship was served in Glasgow and New York. He secured employment as a scenery designer and painter at a prominent New York music theatre where his father worked as principal conductor. Before long, the young Operti moved to the then newly opened Metropolitan Opera House, where he progressed through the ranks to become the Met’s lead scenery designer. For a talented artist, this was a job with immense opportunity. Few canvases are as large as the scenery settings in great opera houses.

With a steady income from the Met, Operti was able to indulge another, very different, interest. He was a keen follower of the exploratory expeditions which were then venturing into polar regions. The year after he started work at the Met, Operti made a summer visit to Europe which included a short stay in Lapland. The lure of the north was clearly a powerful thing for Operti.

Following the return of the survivors of the ill-fated Greely expedition in 1884, Operti interviewed those survivors and produced two large paintings. The farthest north and The rescue of the Greely party both have an operatic quality. Much to Operti’s dismay he never received a cent for either painting, but these pictures opened doors for Operti. He received a number of commissions for paintings on polar themes, even though he had never actually visited the High Arctic. And his Greely expedition paintings earned him an invite to become a founding member of the Arctic Club of America (ACA) — the only person in the early days of the ACA to secure membership without expedition experience.

Through the ACA, Operti received an invite to join Robert Peary’s 1896 and 1897 trips to Greenland where his good humour and conviviality made him popular with the entire team — even though the diminutive Operti was the exact opposite of the typical rugged Arctic adventurer. He produced good documentary records of people and places and these earned Operti great respect in the expedition community. He moved from being an armchair traveller to a polar adventurer. But after 1897, he never ventured north again.

Operti served his time at the Met, and later in life worked on museum displays at the American Museum of Natural History. He provided the background scenery for a North Pole ride at Coney Island fairground. But in ACA circles, and in the wider expedition community, Operti was seen as a thoroughly good guy, and it was that quality which surely justified naming a bay on Wilczek Land after him.

It was only after that bay was named that Operti secured wider recognition and that came through an unusual route. Hard pressed for cash after he stopped working at the Met, Operti struck a deal with a cigarette company to produce a series of 25 small images for use on cigarette cards. Each card bore Operti’s name. Ironically for an artist who had worked mainly on grand operatic tableaux, Operti found a certain degree of fame through tiny pictures included with each pack of cigarettes sold by the Hassan Tobacco Company. In that respect, Operti’s work eventually reached a wider audience than that of most artists working on polar themes.

Related blog post

From Paris to the Peloponnese

Today we are releasing another trio of articles in full text format. All three are on Greek themes and all three were written by travel writer and publisher Duncan JD Smith. There is a tight geographical focus here as all three articles are set in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece.

Related articleFull text online

Where towering cliffs in ocean stand: Lofoten

Capture the atmosphere of one of Europe's most magical landscapes with our account of two communities in the Lofoten islands in northern Norway. Nusfjord is an old fishing station that has reinvented itself through tourism. Meanwhile, the tiny hamlets that cling to the edges of Reinefjord teeter on the brink of extinction.

Related note

The Italia expedition

The Italia left its Milan base in mid April, under the command of Umberto Nobile. Destination: the North Pole. In late May, the pioneer aviators reached their goal. But luck was not on their side. Returning south towards Spitsbergen, the Italia was damaged in a storm and plunged onto the pack ice.