What is the artist really saying about the Franklin Expedition?
Ages 11-14

MysteryQuest 40

What is the artist really saying about the Franklin Expedition?

Author: Ruth Sandwell

Editor: Warren Woytuck, Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case


A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 11-14

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In May 1845, two British ships, the Erebus and the Terror, set sail from England under the command of Sir John Franklin. Their mission was to explore what is now the Canadian Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage-a cheaper and safer trade route to China. The mission was also a scientific one, using the new science of geomagnetism to discover the location of what scientists call the magnetic north pole. Both ships and the entire party of 128 men disappeared into the Arctic and never returned. Their disappearance sparked one of the most extensive search efforts in world history.

Nine years after the expedition departed, Inuit eyewitnesses told a British explorer that they had found objects from a strange ship and unidentified frozen bodies. In 1859, the British public's intrigue turned to horror as Inuit guides successfully directed British search teams to the remains of the Franklin crew and their possessions.

Artists have used the evidence from these search expeditions to imaginatively recreate the events of the Franklin Expedition. Julius von Payer created one of the most well-known paintings of the Franklin Expedition, Starvation Cove. His painting contains explicit meanings about the expedition, providing rich details about what happened, where, when, to whom and why. It also contains some hidden messages about what von Payer really thought-his implied attitudes-about the men involved in the expedition, their environment and the expedition as a whole.

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Your task is to gather as much information as you can from the painting and to look behind the obvious content to find the artist's real views about the events he depicted. You will first explore the explicit meanings of Julius von Payer's Starvation Cove by using the W5 questions (who, what, where, when and why). You will then learn how to find the implied attitudes that the painter may have had about the people, events and places represented in the painting. You will conclude by creating five words or phrases that effectively summarize the artist's real views about the Franklin Expedition.

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STEP 1: Learn about the Franklin Expedition and the Arctic

Your first task is to learn more about the Franklin Expedition, the area its members were travelling in and the people that lived there.

Read about Franklin’s men who were travelling through the region in their expedition to find the Northwest Passage:

See a map of Franklin’s route here:

The Arctic was a foreign place for Franklin and his crew, a location that was more of a passage between two other places (England and China) than it was a place. But it had long been home to another people: the Inuit.

Read about the people who called the Arctic Home at the time of the Franklin Expedition here:

STEP 2: Explore the explicit meanings depicted in a painting

Once you have some context for the event, your next task is to examine a painting and determine what it reveals about the expedition. Starvation Cove by Julius von Payer is perhaps the most famous representation of the Franklin Expedition. Painted first in 1884, and repainted by the same artist in 1897, this painting was one of a series of four depicting the expedition. Starvation Cove portrays the expedition's final moments. It shows seven of the last survivors lying dead in a boat. Sir John Crozier, the last one left alive, is staring at a polar bear near the boat.

Carefully examine the painting:

As you view the painting, use the W5 questions to help you identify the explicit meanings of the painting-what the painting is about:

W5 questions

  • Who are the people in the painting?
  • What are they doing?
  • Where does the painting take place?
  • When did it take place?
  • Why is the action happening?

Each of these W5 questions invites you to make an inference, a plausible conclusion drawn from the evidence you have observed in the painting.

Use the chart on Deciphering the explicit meanings (Activity Sheet 1), to record at least one inference for each of the W5 questions. For example, in filling out the "Inferences" (left-hand) column for "where does the painting take place," you might infer that it is in a northern land.

Next, support your inference with the evidence you can observe in the painting: in this case, you could note that you notice snow and ice around the boat and polar bears in the background. Record this evidence in the "Evidence observed" (middle) column. Be sure that each inference is supported by at least one piece of evidence.

STEP 3: Establish criteria for a plausible inference

Once you have completed the first two columns, you are ready to think about what makes an inference plausible. Not all inferences are equally convincing; some are less plausible than others. Here are two criteria that may identify a plausible inference:

  • Consistent: a plausible inference is consistent with evidence from the painting and from other sources (for example, the Franklin Expedition website). While you might infer that the men were space aliens, this is not consistent with other evidence in the painting, or elsewhere on the Franklin Expedition website.
  • Specific or detailed: a plausible inference is specific or detailed. For example, using details from the painting to infer that the expedition took place in the mid-1800s is more specific than stating "the expedition took place a long time ago."

Revisit what you have written in the "Inferences" and "Evidence Observed" columns. Keeping in mind the two criteria, which of your inferences are most plausible? Which are the least?

Using the final column, "Plausibility Rating," assess your inferences for each W5 question on a scale from 10 (highly plausible) to 1 (unlikely), based on the number of details you have included and their consistency with other evidence in the painting or on the website. Revise any less plausible inferences to make them more consistent or detailed.

Working in pairs, assess your partner's inferences for each W5 question on a scale from 10 (highly plausible) to 1 (unlikely), based on the number of details included and their consistency with other evidence in the painting or on the website.

STEP 4: Uncover the painter’s implied attitudes

Now that you have explored the explicit meanings, you are ready to uncover the artist's implied attitudes about the people and events represented in the painting.

Artists often do more than imaginatively portraying particular historical events: if you look carefully, you can find some more or less hidden (or implicit) messages about what the artist really thought and felt about the people and events in the painting. These implied attitudes are usually not as direct, clear or easy to see as the explicit meanings.

What implied attitudes does von Payer reveal in Starvation Cove? What did he really think about the men, the environment and the Franklin Expedition? Can we find evidence that he thought the men were brave or foolhardy, incompetent or merely unlucky? Is there evidence that von Payer thought that the Franklin Expedition was a waste of time and money, a grand adventure, a useful enterprise-or something else?

On January 29, 1884, a London Times reporter described von Payer's Starvation Cove at the painting's first public display. The article begins by providing many details about the painting's explicit meanings by describing the W5 questions it answered (for the full article, see Julius von Payer: Starvation Cove (1884)).

When reporting on what it was like to see the painting, the reporter wrote:

"You feel you are before a solitary and fearful battlefield, but one with duty and science for its object and God for its witness."

In comparing Starvation Cove to a battlefield, the writer infers that von Payer viewed the Franklin Expedition as a noble battle, not in a war between nations, but in a quest for "duty and science." The reporter may have used the positioning of the dead bodies to infer that von Payer's implied attitude was that the men were brave though dead warriors-definitely not a bunch of useless sailors and explorers with poor planning, navigation or camping skills.

Complete the first two columns of the chart in Deciphering von Payer’s implied attitudes (Activity Sheet 2) to help you explore the artist's implied attitudes towards Franklin's men, the environment and the expedition. To do this, you will be using skills similar to those used to identify the explicit meanings of the painting (Step 2).

When you have completed the first two columns, check to see if your inferences meet the criteria for a plausible inference. Revise any inferences that are not plausible, and then assess your inferences by completing column 3, "Plausibility rating."

STEP 5: Drawing conclusions

You are now ready to create five words or phrases that effectively summarize the implied attitudes found in the painting. Revisit the first three columns of Activity Sheet 2 and review your interpretations of the author's implied attitudes. Complete the final column by creating at least five words or phrases that summarize von Payer's implied attitudes towards Franklin's men, the environment and the expedition.

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The assessment rubric Assessing the evidence and inferences may be used to assess the plausibility of inferences for both the explicit meanings and implied attitudes.

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Activity Sheet 1: Deciphering the explicit meanings

Activity Sheet 2: Deciphering von Payer’s implied attitudes

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The Mysteries of Franklin's Last Voyage
Northwest Passage
Franklin's Voyage from England to the Arctic
Arctic Homeland
Julius von Payer: Starvation Cove (1897)
Julius von Payer: Starvation Cove (1884)